1. The Agent Theme in Rabbinic Tought. The idea of the agent plays a significant part in Scripture and rabbinic thought. The rabbis used the term שלִיחַ /shaliach/, and recognized that “a man’s agent is as himself” (Berakhot 5:5), a passage which illustrates agency by reference to Hanina ben Dosa’s intercessory prayers for healing:

    • One who prays and errs—it is a bad sign for him.
    • And if he is a communal agent, [who prays on behalf of the whole congregation], congregation], it is a bad sign for them that appointed him.
    • [This is on the principle that] a man’s agent is like [the man] himself.
    • They said concerning R. Haninah b. Dosa, “When he would pray for the sick he would say, ‘This one shall live’ or ‘this one shall die.’
    • They said to him, “How do you know?”
    • He said to them, “If my prayer is fluent, then I know that it is accepted [and the person will live].
    • “But if not, I know that it is rejected [and the person will die].”1
  2. The Agent Theme in John. The pioneer work by Peder Borgen2 has been taken up by others.3 Borgen sees in John the rabbinic theme of the agent empowered to act combined with the concept of the heavenly agent found in Hellenistic Judaism, especially Philo. Borgen contends that Jesus is not the prophet like Moses, though the crowd thought him to be so on account of the manna miracle (6:1-21).4 As the Son of Man, he is the Father’s accredited envoy. “The concluding point in v. 27 is not the search of the crowd nor the choice as such with which they are confronted by Jesus, but the seal which God the Father put on the Son of Man. The word σφραγίζω and its Hebrew and Aramaic equivalents are technical terms for sealing and signing as a witness. Thus, the Son of Man (and not the prophet-like Moses) give the bread which endures for eternal life.”5

Jan-A. Bühner has made an extensive study of this motif in the FG. He sees it at two levels—the first reflecting Jewish apocalyptic thought and the second reflecting rabbinic understanding of the representative figure.6 Perhaps the most succinct statement of Jesus’ role as the Father’s Son/agent is given by Margaret Davies:

When the Fourth Gospel uses the father-son metaphor to depict the relationship between God and a human being, it is clear that first-century social conventions are being taken for granted. The Son of God is entirely dependent on his Father. He lives only for the Father (6.57). He does nothing on his own authority but only what he sees or hears the Father doing (8.38; 10.18; 12.49–50; 14.24; 15.15). The Father is his teacher (8.28). The Son is his Father’s apprentice … (5.19–20)… . The Gospel depicts the Son’s activity as that of a human agent, acting on the Father’s behalf. The Father ‘sent’ the Son into the world to achieve his purpose (5.36–37; 8.16; 10.36; 12.49). Hence the Son has come ‘in the Father’s name’ (5.43; 10.25), and the Father has set his seal on his mission (6.27). He does the Father’s works (5.17; 10.25, 37; 14.10), fulfills his commands (15.10), speaks his words (8.38; 12.50; 14.24), does what the Father wills (6.40), looks after his interests (2.16), and drinks from the cup he has given him (18.11). It is therefore appropriate that the Son should be accorded the same honour as the Father (1.14; 5.23; 12.28). Those who hate the Son hate the Father (15.23–24), those who love the Son are loved by the Father (14.21–23; 16.27). To see the Son doing the Father’s work is therefore tantamount to seeing the Father (14.9), since the Father dwells in the Son, his agent, as the Son dwells in the Father (10.38; 14.10–11; 17.21). In this sense the Father and the Son are one (10.30) in spite of the fact that the Son acknowledges the Father’s superiority (14.28).7

Although the term שלִיחַ; is not found in biblical Hebrew, the verb is common, and is found, for example, in the important passage Isa. 61:1 which plays a crucial part in Luke 4:19. In the FG the theme of sending is critical. The verb ἀποστέλλω occurs some 27 times,8 and πέμπω occurs some 31 times.9 In both cases there are predominantly theological overtones and a similar distribution of meaning. The majority of instances relate to the sending of the Son. But the themes of sending and agency are further applied to the disciples. “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who receives anyone whom I send [πέμπω] receives me; and he who receives me receives him who sent [πέμψαντἀ] me” (13:20 RSV). The risen Christ says to the disciples: “Peace be unto you. As the Father has sent [ajpevstalkevn] me, even so I send [πέμπω] you” (20:21). After bestowing on them the Spirit, he gives them authority to forgive or retain sins (20:22-23). The concept of Jesus as the son/agent of the Father strikes me not only as critical for understanding Jesus’ sonship as depicted in the FG, but also for understanding his identity and mission in the Synoptic Gospels.10

Copyright © Colin Brown, 2000

  1. The Mishnah: A New Translation, ed. Jacob Neusner (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988), 9. [return]
  2. Bread from Heaven: An Exegetical Study of the Concept of Manna in the Gospel of John and the Writings of Philo, Supplements to Novum Testamentum 10 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1965), 158–164; Borgen, “God’s Agent in the Fourth Gospel,” in J. Neusner, ed., Religions in Antiquity (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1968), 137–148, reprinted in Logos Was the True Light and Other Essays on the Gospel of John, Relieff 9 (Trondheim Tapir, University of Trondheim, 1983), 121–132, and John Ashton, ed., The Interpretation of John, 83-95. Other rabbinic parallels noted by Borgen include Mekilta on Exod. 12:3; 12:6; Baba Mesia 96a; Hagigah 10b; Qiddushin 42b, 43a; Menahot 93b; Nazir 12b; Baba Qamma 113b; Sifre on Num. 12:9 [return]
  3. K. H. Rengstorf noted the theme but did not think that it played any central role in John (/ajpostevllw/, ajpovstolo” TDNT 1: 403–405, 413–424, 430–437). For a review of sending-conventions see Francis H. Agnew, “The Origin of the NT Apostle-Concept: A Review of Research,” JBL 105 (1986): 75-96. Among those who have pursued the theme in relation to christology are Anthony Harvey, “Christ as Agent,” in L. D. Hurst and N. T. Wright, eds., The Glory of Christ in the New Testament, 239–250; Howard Clark Kee, What Can We Know about Jesus? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 104–110; Calvin Mercer, “∆APOSTELLEIN and PEMPEIN in John,” NTS 36 (1990): 619–624; Ben Witherington, III, The Christology of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 142–143; John Ashton, Understanding the Fourth Gospel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 312–317. For a brief review of sending in the Fourth Gospel and the ancient world see C. K. Barrett, The Gospel according to St. John, 569–570. [return]
  4. “John 6: Tradition, Interpretation and Composition,” in Early Christianity and Hellenistic Judaism, 205-29. [return]
  5. Early Christianity and Hellenistic Judaism, 228. [return]
  6. Jan A. Bühner, Der Gesandte und sein Weg im 4. Evangelium. Die kultur- und religionsgeschichtlichen Grundlagen der Johanneischen Sendungschristologie sowie ihre traditionsgeschichtliche Entwicklickung, WUNT 2. Reihe 2 (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1977). [return]
  7. Rhetoric and Reference in the Fourth Gospel, JSNTSS 69 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992), 131. [return]
  8. /apostevllw/ is used of the sending of John the Baptist (1:6; 3:28), the delegates of the Jewish authorities (1:19, 24; 5:33; 7:32), the meaning of Soloam (9:7), the message of Mary and Martha (11:3), the disciples (4:36; 17:18), the sending of Jesus bound by Annas to Caiaphas (18:24), and above all the sending of Jesus the Son by the Father (3:17, 34; 5:36, 38; 6:29, 57; 7:29; 8:42; 10:36; 11:42; 17:3, 8, 21, 23, 25; 20:21). [return]
  9. pevmpw is also used of the sending of John the Baptist (1:33), the delegates of the Jewish authorities (1:22), the disciples (13:16, 20; 20:12), but above all of the sending of Jesus the Son by the Father (5:23, 24, 30, 37; 6: 38, 39, 44; 7:16, 18, 28; 8:16, 18, 26, 29; 9:4; 12: 44, 45, 49; 14:24; 15:21; 16:5). In addition, it is also used of the sending of the Paraclete/Advocate (14:26; 15:26; 16:7). [return]
  10. My study of the parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16:1–8) identifies Jesus himself as the steward or agent (/shaliach/;) who remitted crippling debts that could not be paid and was accused of acting improperly (Colin Brown, “The Unjust Steward: A New Twist?” in Michael J. Wilkins and Terence Paige, eds., Worship, Theology and Ministry in the Early Church: Essays in Honor of Ralph P. Martin, JSNTMS 87 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992), 121–145. The term oijkonovmo” is used in the Gospels in Luke 16:1, 8; cf. 12:42. ejpivtropo” (steward) occurs in Matt. 20:8; Luke 8:3. In addition attention may be drawn to Matt. 10:40 (“He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me” [RSV]); and Luke 10:16 (“He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” [RSV]). [return]