Lectionary Year B
May 21, 2000
Step IV: Broader Context
(KA) A. PRIMITIVE CHRISTIANITY
There are several possible links to this passage throughout the New Testament.
The main idea/theme that keeps showing up is that of the vine and the fruits of
the vine. Some possible parrallels include:
Matthew 3:8 "Bear fruit that befits repentance..."
Matthew 7:16-20 "You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from
thorns, or figs from thistles? So, every sound tree bears good fruit, but the
bad tree bears evil fruit. A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad
tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and
thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits."
Luke 6:43-45 "For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear
good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered
from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good man out of the
good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil
treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks."
Galatians 5: 22-23 "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience,
kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there
is no law."
Ephesians 5:9 "for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right
Philippians 1:11 "... filled with the fruits of righteousness which come
through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God."
[All of these references are from RSV]
These New Testament references may point to some significant themes and/or
images that show up in the text from John 15. Matthew and Luke certainly give
some time to talking about bearing good and bad fruit, etc. The epistles use
language re: fruits of the spirit, fruits of righteousness, etc. -- highlighting
the importance (or at very least the significance) of this image of the vine and
the branches. Some more to think about: good and bad fruits, good and bad
branches, connected to Jesus, pruning those branches back to get not only
better, but more fruit?
It seems obvious that the early Christian community identified goodness with bountiful fruit. In the Gospel of Matthew an illustration about what happens to a tree not bearing good fruit (Mt. 3:10) is given (Nestle, Eberhard. Novum Testamentum Graece. Ed. Kurt Aland. 26th Edition. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1979. [Outer Margin]). John the Baptist is cited as the speaker to the Pharisees, warning of eternal judgment. Matthew records that the tree will be cut at the roots and thrown into the fire. It seem evident that the Johannine community accepted the theology of eternal damnation. The symbolism of fire for hell connects these two passages and it can be concluded that Jesus confirmed John the Baptists preaching of repent and be saved. When one considers the relativity of Mt. 3:8, "Bear fruit that befits repentance", this Jesus affirmation of John the Baptist's message is further developed.
It is widely accepted that primitive Christianity formulated theological thought by systemizing early gnostic ideas. While Gnosticism would profess a dualism of matter and spirit in life, only the spirit was elevated as good. Gnostics believed it was only by special knowledge that the spirit would transcend the flesh to realize salvation. Along the same line of thought, Philo of Alexandria (born B.C.E. 20) incorporated Stoic, Platonic and Hebraic thought into the his doctrine of 'the Logos' (Westcott, "Introduction".). Philo's understanding of logos meaning reason and word, would mature into his theological view of divine Reason. Thus this predominant teacher would have laid firm the dominant cultural thought of the Johannine community. John's gospel clearly is aimed at reteaching logos as the divine Word. The first verse declares Logos as the Word always in existence and in union with God. Thus John seems quite focused on teaching these Jewish-Christian communities that salvation only comes through Christ, The Word, the True Vine.
(KA) B. OT/JUDAISM
What a striking resemblance this pericope has to "The Parable of the Vine" (RSV) found in Ez. 15:1-8. This Old Testament prophetic passage warns of God's judgement of "the inhabitants of Jerusalem". The value of a productive tree was well understood in both early and later Judaism. Obvious the reasoning was centered on the worthlessness of a useless branch and the inevitable burning of such. The apostle John is focused on this very same warning for any not believing in Christ as Lord and Savior. The LXX and John's literary use of equating righteousness with fruits certainly agree. Judaism quite readily grasped the relativity of plant life to religious life. The midrash taught that, just like "the dry land can be planted and bring forth fruit, so the righteous bring forth fruits (i.e., good works)" (Kittel, Gerhard, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1965, p. 614, 615, note 4.).
(KA) C. HELLENISTIC WORLD
The Hellenistic period was very productive in philosophical reflection. As mentioned earlier, Philo of Alexandria probably impacted significantly the early Christian community's theological foundations. An interesting observation is that though categorized as a Hellenistic Jewish writer, scholars conjecture that Philo's Judaism was a multidimensional expression of his religious thought. Louis Finkelstein writes, "Apart from the philosophical aspects of Philo's works one must notice the gratifying fact that among religious historians of today there has arisen a new appreciation of the poetry and mystical insights of Philo, which are so pervasive an element in his writings that some scholars have gone so far as to argue that he was primarily a mystic who used Judaism merely as an outer form in which to clothe an esoteric personal religion." (Finkelstein, Louis, The Jews: Their History, Culture, and Religion Volume II, New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1949, p. 776.). It is most probable that the culture in the Johannine community was well acquainted with the hybrid philosophical thoughts of Philo.
The widespread influence of Gnosticism was probably a cultural given. Kenneth Latourette writes, "It may be that the Fourth Gospel was written to refute Gnostic Hellenizers." (Latourette, Kenneth Scott, A History of The Expansion of Christianity [Volume I] The First Five Centuries, New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1937, p. 335.). Clearly, the culture's interest in symbolic meaning, along with material and spiritual dualism
affected the apostle John's literary style. The placement of this pericope after Jesus's many claims to be Lord, seems to reach out in a way this community would embrace. The account seems to depict Jesus as reaching out to the same type of mindset during his ministry.
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