Riddles of the Fourth Gospel
An Introduction to John
Publication Year: 2011
Published by: Augsburg Fortress Publishers
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Title Page, Copyright
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Preface and Acknowledgments
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This book is written for students of the Fourth Gospel—students on several levels. For those coming to the text for the first time, it is designed to pick up on things one notices in a first reading or two, but also the sorts of things one is forced to confront as familiarity grows. In that sense, it is also written for more seasoned students of the Fourth Gospel who have been seeking to understand and address its perplexing riddles for some time. Therefore, I am not content simply to list an overview of scholarly opinion without evaluating different approaches ...
Introduction: Navigating a Stream in which a Child Can Wade and an Elephant Can Swim
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The Gospel according to John has been described as a stream in which a child can wade and an elephant can swim.1 This imagery highlights an impressive fact: while the Fourth Gospel is widely considered the most reader friendly and accessible of nearly all biblical writings, it also continues to be one of the most perplexing of texts among serious interpreters. Why is that so? Consider this: We see Christians flash “John 3:16” (“For God so loved the world . . .”) at baseball games and on highway billboards, in a sincere effort to share ...
PART 1: Outlining the Johannine Riddles
The cover of this book features an artist’s depiction of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, a religious expert and a leader among the Jews. He declares what he knows: Jesus could not perform the signs he does unless he were sent from God (John 3:2). And yet he fails to understand what it means to be born “from above.” The ways of the Spirit are like the uncontrollable wind—neither seen nor heard, but its effects are indeed felt (3:8). So it is with the mysterious ways of God, and those who claim to see often get it wrong (9:41). Did Nicodemus come ...
Chapter 1: An Overview of the Fourth Gospel
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In posing an overview of the Fourth Gospel, discerning the lay of the land will help. As the most distinctive among the four canonical Gospels, noting John’s particular characteristics helps us focus on its contents in their own right. There-fore, the outline and flow of John’s narrative, its material’s distinctive features, and John’s Gospel may be divided into four unequal parts: a shorter Prologue (1:1-18) and an Epilogue (21:1-25) and, between them, a more substantive “Book of Signs” (chaps. 1–12) and “Book of Glory” (chaps. 13–20). (These terms will be explained ...
Chapter 2: The Theological Riddles of the Fourth Gospel
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In simply considering the thematic center of the Prologue, the theological riddles of the Fourth Gospel become apparent. Is the central emphasis of John 1:14 the Word becoming flesh (featuring the humanity of Jesus), or is it that we have beheld his glory (featuring the divinity of Christ)? Is Jesus one with the Father, or subordinate to the Father? After all, he claims, “The Father and I are one,” but then he declares, “The Father is greater than I.” So, even if one hopes to embrace the plain and direct meaning of the text, how does one decide what John’s text is ...
Chapter 3: The Historical Riddles of the Fourth Gospel
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In addition to theological riddles, John’s historical riddles are among the most perplexing features of any biblical text. Whereas John’s theological riddles espe-cially captivated the attention of ancient theologians, John’s historical riddles have evoked some of the most explosive religious and scholarly discussions in mod-ern times. Put bluntly, the “consensus” of modern critical scholarship regarding John’s historicity actually involves two platforms: the dehistoricization of John and the de-Johannification of Jesus.1 First, because John differs so much from the three ...
Chapter 4: The Literary Riddles of the Fourth Gospel
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In addition to theological tensions and historical riddles, a host of literary per-plexities confront the reader of the Fourth Gospel. Scholars call these aporias (meaning “impasses” or “puzzlements”), and in seeking to address them, they also look for ways to make sense of the other riddles we have already addressed. From odd transitions to apparent additions to the text, John’s literary perplexities must also be considered before posing an adequate theory of composition and tra-dition history. While leading theories of Johannine composition will be engaged ...
Summation of Part 1
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When considering even the basic features of the Fourth Gospel, its rid-dles quickly become apparent. Theologically, nearly every major theme appears to have more than one side to it, and these poles must be held together in tension lest the material be overlooked or misunderstood. It is therefore understandable that some of the leading theological controversies in Christian his-tory have revolved around seeking to understand issues of which the Fourth Gospel In the modern era, this same Gospel has contributed to some of the most ...
PART 2: Addressing the Johannine Riddles
Having outlined the riddles of the Fourth Gospel, the question now is how to address them and how to interpret the Gospel of John in light of the issues they raise. Of course, the ultimate goal of reading any classic text, especially this favorite Gospel text, is to open oneself to its message and to allow its story to engage us personally. Otherwise, can we really claim that we are taking a text seri-ously? So, I ask you to read over the Gospel of John again, having noted its riddles and tensions, but this time asking yourself how the message speaks to you. Are there ...
Chapter 5: Scholarly Approaches to John
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Approaches to the Fourth Gospel are often divided into two larger categories: traditional and critical approaches to John. But this simplistic division fails to do justice to astute scholarship on more than one front. While it is largely true that scholarly approaches to John before the nineteenth century were fairly uniform in their appraisals, it cannot be said that they were uncritical. And, while a great number of scholarly approaches to John have developed over the last two centuries, it cannot be said that there is a general consensus about one particular ...
Chapter 6: The Dialogical Autonomy of the Fourth Gospel
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Reflecting on a dozen leading approaches to the origin and composition of the Fourth Gospel, we see that each of them has its own set of strengths—and likewise weaknesses. Impressive also is the way each of these approaches to John seeks to make sense of the Johannine riddles, with varying degrees of success. In this chapter, I shall lay out what I believe to be the best way to handle the classic Johannine questions, always seeking to move from the strongest evidence available to other inferences. In my view, first- and second-century opinions should be given ...
Chapter 7: The Origin and Character of the Johannine Riddles
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We return now to the Johannine riddles and how to address them. The two previous chapters showed how composition theories and analyses of the Johannine tradition and its situation have sought to provide ways for-ward. In the light of John’s dialogical autonomy, we have here an independent tradi-tion that developed alongside Mark and the other Gospels but is not dependent on them. Further, some of the contacts, in oral stages of the traditions and otherwise, may have been dialogical—and even corrective—instead of simply repeating the ...
Summation of Part 2
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While attempts to address the riddles of the Fourth Gospel have been rigor-ous and sustained, not all paradigms have fared equally well. Most have addressed some riddles but neglected others. Likewise, addressing one set of problems critically often leads to a new set of critical problems, which scholars have sometimes then ignored. Interestingly, traditional and critical approaches to John’s origin and development have often been driven by a conviction as to who the author must, or must not, have been. Such a delimiting of options then forces other ...
PART 3: Interpreting the Johannine Riddles
As we turn now to the interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, as well as its riddles and related themes, a theory of John’s dialogical autonomy provides a solid basis on which to build. Beginning with leading themes in John’s theology, a ques-tion to ponder is whether the theological conclusions of the church fathers and moth-ers would have been any different if explored in terms of John’s dialogical autonomy. The next chapter deals not only with John’s historicity, but also its implications for the historical quest for Jesus. What would happen if the Fourth Gospel were included in ...
Chapter 8: The Christ of Faith and Johannine Theology
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John’s presentation of Jesus as the Christ is central to the Evangelist’s theology, and one is mindful of Oscar Cullmann’s view that for the early Christians, Christology was theology.1 This is especially true for the Fourth Gospel. In addi-tion to the nature of Christ and the Son’s relation to the Father, however, John’s perspective on Jesus’ signs, the means of salvation, the presentation of “the Jews,” and dualism deserve to be addressed. In considering the origin and character of John’s theological tensions, primary factors have in each case been put forward (see ...
Chapter 9: The Jesus of History in John
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A great irony of religious studies in the modern era is that the only Gospel claiming to convey tradition rooted in direct access to Jesus and his ministry is also the only Gospel that is programmatically expunged from studies of the historical Jesus. Reasons for this judgment, of course, are understandable. John is the most theological among the Gospels, and it is also the most different. Fur-ther, on many a score, one cannot have it both ways. One must choose either the Synoptics or John on many issues: the timing of the Temple incident (early or late?), ...
Chapter 10: The Life of the Church
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Bolstering the life of the church is one of the central interests of the Fourth Gospel, and the Evangelist seeks to engage the life of believers with the pres-ence of Christ as the risen Lord of the church. The other Gospels also share this interest, but John excels in its distinctive approaches to church vitality. John’s is a theology of encounter. It rises from transformative encounter and seeks to engen-der the same in later audiences. Whether a wader or a swimmer, the reader is finally invited to jump into the water and see what happens experientially....
Summation of Part 3
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Having outlined and addressed the riddles of the Fourth Gospel, their inter-pretation follows readily. Given John’s dialogical autonomy, understanding it as an individuated tradition developing parallel to, but not dependent upon, the Synoptics, allows the Fourth Gospel to retain its own voice. Rather than being a nuisance or a scandal, John’s literary perplexities provide keys to under-standing the composition and design of this distinctive narrative. Furthermore, considering the multiplicity of dialogical factors in the tradition’s development and ...
Conclusion: Navigating the Living Waters
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Nicodemus came to Jesus “by night” making bold claims about what he “knew” as a religious leader, while ironically revealing his ignorance of the ways of the Spirit in the ensuing discussion. Did he come around or did he remain in the dark? Notice that he stood up for Jesus in John 7 and was present at the cross, helping to bury the body of Jesus (19:39). Likewise, while the woman at the well initially misunderstood the offer Jesus was making, she came to see him as the Messiah. Not only did she believe, but she became an apostle to the Samaritans, ...
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Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2011