John 13:1-30 is an interesting narrative illustrating the complexity of understanding human intentions from a written text. The text was written at the end of the first century by someone, whom tradition names as John. If one assumes that "John" has described a historical situation accurately, there appear to be three levels, posited by the author in this text, on which human intentions can be considered: level one, Jesus and the disciples; level two, the later composer of the text; level three, the readers of the text.
Level one: At a meal Jesus, disturbed in spirit, abruptly asserts "one of you will betray me" (13:21). The perplexed disciples do not know who he was talking about (13:22), so Peter asks the disciple "who was lying near the breast of Jesus," "who is it?" (13:24), and that disciple (i.e., he "whom Jesus loved") relays the question to Jesus (13:25). Jesus answers that it is he to whom I give this sop (13:26a), and then he gave it to Judas (13:26b).
The narrator interrupts this dramatic action (which is the "showing" of the story as it happens) at this point to directly address the reader in an aside with information about Judas that the actors in the literary drama do not overhear: "Satan entered into him" after he had taken the sop (13:27). The drama then resumes with Jesus telling Judas "do quickly what you are going to do" (13:27b). At this point again the narrator overrides the description of the scene with interpretive commentary telling readers that the disciples did not understand why Jesus had said this to Judas (13:28) and offers two explanations for Jesus' statement that the narrator asserts the disciples were thinking (13:29). The narrator briefly returns to conclude the scene by telling readers that Judas immediately left on his undisclosed errand and it was night (13:30).
Readers are left to ponder, along with the disciples, why Jesus told Judas to do quickly, what he was going to do (13:27b). But a bigger puzzlement is why disciples could not understand what they had just seen and heard when it is so obvious to any reader: Judas is going to betray Jesus (13:26; John 6:70-71; 18:2-5).
Level two: The writer deliberately (or sloppily?) narrates the story in such a way as to leave the reader perplexed as to the writer's intentions: Why deliberately contradict 13:2 with 13:27 as to when Satan entered into Judas? Why would the author use a technique of the fiction writer by reading the disciples' minds (13:29), an act that is impossible in real life, in order to explain how the disciples misunderstood Judas' intentions? After Jesus' statement to the disciples in 13:21, why would the author leave completely unstated what Judas is obviously going to do? What is the significance of the extraneous "thus, in this manner" (outōs, 13:25), and why does the writer feel it necessary to illustrate the Roman manner of reclining at table (13:23, 25)?
Level three: Every close reader of the Gospel of John since the second century is left to make what they will of these problems.
In all candidness, however, there are only two historical levels in this brief narrative: level one is that of the author who composed the narrative, ascribed intentions and reactions to the characters, invented the dialogue, or lack of it. This shadowy figure either deliberately controlled the narrative in all particulars intending its lack of clarity and verbosity; for example the writer doubles the question "who is it" asked by Peter and by the disciple whom Jesus loved (13:23-25) and twice describes Judas receiving the sop (13:27; 13:30); or were these simply careless oversights?
There may, of course, have been an actual historical meal at which Jesus was upset that one of his chosen disciples determined to betray him, and sensed the gravity of what was about to happen, but our author was not present at the meal and had no way of knowing such intimate details. The most honest thing in the narrative is the writer's omission of Jesus' intention in telling Judas to do quickly what he intended to do—because we never know anyone's intentions. The most dishonest thing in the narrative is the author's reading of the minds of the disciples telling what they were thinking—because we cannot accurately "read" the minds of others.
Well, so what? Is there a greater significance to the information in this short essay? Perhaps.
Readers decide the significance of all information they take in. There is no universally agreed upon significance of anything. In my view the significance of the foregoing essay is the following: "Creative inspiration," if such there be, always resides in the mind of the human author and should not be transferred to a text, which is always subject to critical reviews pointing out flaws in a text. If we decide that a given text is "inspired," that is merely our own opinion.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University