Seeing and believing (John 20)

Cut from the sermon I preached on Easter Sunday on John 20:1-18

Resurrection, from Notre Dame de Paris (my photo)

After the women find the tomb empty, Mary Magdalene tells the apostles. And so Peter and John run together. John never refers to himself by name or in the first person; he is always just “the disciple Jesus loved”. John gets there first, and “bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there…” Peter also “saw the linen wrappings”. John follows Peter now and enters the tomb, “and he saw and believed.”

Here’s a philological moment from Professor Hoskin for you, then.

The Greek uses three different verbs of seeing in this passage. First, βλέπει from βλέπω. When John first arrives and looks in without entering, this is the kind of seeing. It’s your most basic kind of seeing, I guess. See, perceive, that sort of thing.

Second, θεωρεῖ (theorei), from θεωρέω (theoreo). This is the kind of seeing Peter has. This is a deeper kind of seeing, like when you go to the theatre—in fact, the word theatre comes from this verb, as does the word theory, since it can also take on meanings of contemplate and meditate in other contexts.

Third, εἶδεν καὶ ἐπίστευσεν (eiden kai episteusen). This final moment of seeing, εἶδεν (eiden) doesn’t have a present form, which is fulfilled by ὁράω (horao). This time, St John beholds, perceives, observes, really. And then he believes. I guess this means that he believes in the Resurrection, although he immediately tells us that “as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”

Which Scripture, you may ask? Psalm 16:10 is one possibility, “For You will not abandon my soul to Hades / Nor allow Your Holy One to see corruption.” Possibly the sign of Jonah that Jesus talks about elsewhere, that just as Jonah was three days in the belly of the fish, so must the Son of Man be in the tomb. Neither of these is a straightforward fulfilment of prophecy the way we moderns like it, though, is it? Not like the suffering servant in Isaiah. Nonetheless, God has interwoven hints and clues of his plan to save us throughout history and throughout the very fabric of sacred Scripture.

When St Mary Magdalene sees the two angels, it is again θεωρεῖ (theorei), and again when she sees Jesus. When she tells the disciples that she has seen him in verse 18, she says, “Ἑώρακα (heoraka),” – “I have seen,” from ὁράω (horao). This is the verb which acts as if it were the present of εἶδεν (eiden).

And now we chart beyond the boundaries of what I had prepared before I cut the sermon down to size…

What is the upshot of all this seeing? I am thinking on this. Do the different verbs of seeing carry great weight in our interpretation of the passage? Should John’s first seeing from outside the tomb be “glance”, and then Peter’s seeing be “observe” or something like that? What about when John looks again?

It seems certain to me that there are perhaps three distinct acts going on with the male disciples. John does, indeed, just glance at first. Peter goes right in, so he sees more clearly. John’s second view that is paired with believing is likewise more than a glance.

But I would always go with the kind of seeing Peter and Mary do as being the deeper — θεωρέω (theoreo): watch, observe, contemplate, meditate on, whereas the other verbs of seeing are more neutral.

There is, of course, always the basic possibility that these are simply three Greek words for “to see” chosen for variation because that’s how ancient literary composition worked. And that’s why many English translations do not distinguish between them, either. (St Augustine wouldn’t like that option, though.)

2 thoughts on “Seeing and believing (John 20)

  1. Interesting post on a fascinating passage. Thanks for pointing out those three different verbs (amazing how we can miss these things). Could it matter that εἶδον is cognate with οἶδα, an important word for John?

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