In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by:
  • Archetypes and the Fourth Gospel: Literature and Theology in Conversation by Brian Larsen
  • Cornelia van Deventer
Larsen, Brian. 2018. Archetypes and the Fourth Gospel: Literature and Theology in Conversation. London: T&T Clark. ISBN 978-0567676474. Pp. 216. Hardcover. £91.90.

Larsen's monograph is a reworked version of his 2001 dissertation, submitted to the University of St. Andrews for a Ph.D. in literature and theology. The book reflects this dual interest as it marries two of the author's great loves, namely, theology and the Bible, on the one hand, and literature and literary analysis, on the other. Larsen sets out to remind his readers that the Bible is "a work of literature and a work of theology" (1), and that the Fourth Gospel (FG) is no exception to this. In his study, Larsen employs (and adapts) Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism (1957), in which Frye developed a theory of literary criticism framed by four generic plots: romance, tragedy, satire and irony/comedy. Avoiding the usage of only one of these plots to describe the FG, Larsen identifies them as four possible literary archetypes and argues that different characters in the Gospel embody salient features of each:

Jesus, an innocent and virtuous man acting on behalf of others embodies much of the heroic pattern characteristic of romance; Pilate, unable or unwilling to act justly in an unwanted and unavoidable particular circumstance, as tragic; Thomas and the Jews, as representatives of the ironic and skeptical point of view; and Peter, who denies Christ and later recovers, as comic.


Larsen calls this approach "archetypal criticism" and identifies its outcome as bringing the art of literature into theology and biblical studies, while simultaneously bringing the Bible into the realm of literature. He identifies characterisation as the ideal meeting place for this dialogue.

The monograph consists of six chapters. Chapters 2–4 can be read as individual literary units and do not necessarily sequentially build on one another. In the introductory first chapter (1–20), Larsen briefly unpacks Frye's four archetypes and establishes that the archetypical categorisation [End Page 598] of characters rests on the interplay between belief, the ideal and reality, and experience. To Larsen, the prologue serves as the constant by which this interplay is to be reviewed, as it establishes the conceptual paradigm by which Jesus and the Gospel are to be interpreted.

The second chapter, "The Fourth Gospel, Jesus, and Romance" (23–66), serves to connect the character of Jesus in the FG with the archetype of the romantic hero. Frye's conceptualisation of romance is defined by Larsen (23) as "an episodic hero story or quest that features a conflict between an ideal and its opposite within a context of signs, wonders, and the marvelous." Larsen defines the archetype of romance as "a story of a hero who embodies and displays some ideal" (26). He creatively argues that the FG holds romance and realism in tension and that the identity of each character in a romance is to be understood in terms of a higher transcendent ideal. Protagonists and antagonists are thus created by proximity to the hero (Jesus), who represents the ideal, and the reactions towards him, which drive the characters into the realm of either tragedy, irony or comedy.

In the third chapter, "Tragedy and Pilate" (67–119), Larsen begins by distinguishing between the notion of tragedy as ill fate and its feature as a literary genre. He notes Jo-Ann Brant's important book, Dialogue and Drama: Elements of Greek Tragedy in the Fourth Gospel (2004), but diverges from her reading by not regarding the entire Johannine plot as a tragedy. In his discussion of Pilate, he counters the common reduction of Pilate to a static character by arguing that there is significant growth in Pilate between John 18:29 and 19:22. Larsen also argues that the trial in 18:28–19:16 points beyond itself and reveals Pilate as a tragic figure in the sense that he is "consistently lagging behind in his understanding of Jesus and of events" (73). This portrayal of Pilate as a tragic archetype (typically) evokes feelings of fear and pity among audience...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 598-602
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.