Chapter 1. Reading John

Where to Start?

There is an aphorism that I like to quote to my students. I have seen various iterations of the saying, but the version I most often recite goes like this: “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.” Every academic year I encounter a new group of students and find myself faced with the task of introducing them to the study of the Bible. The institution in which I teach is located in a rural center of eastern North Carolina, and many of my students come from backgrounds in which the Bible is read and cherished. These students bring with them an understanding of the Bible that often needs subtle nuance, gentle correction, and occasionally, serious deconstruction. Other students have had little if any exposure to the Bible, which means that I must provide them with a completely different foundation for studying the Bible than the former collection of students. I have found that one of the best ways to initiate such a diverse group to the academic study of the Bible is to begin with this admission:

I have a set of lenses that you can’t see but without which I can’t see. These are the lenses of my background and my experiences, my gender and my upbringing, my ethnicity and my education. These lenses shape, color, inform, and even taint my view of the world and my very best attempts at objectivity. This is also true for each of you.

I begin the semester in this way because I want students to strive for objectivity while also realizing that they will never fully achieve it. I want them to embrace their own experiences, backgrounds, and viewpoints while striving both to question and transcend them.

This book is admittedly a product of my lenses. It is therefore imperfect, and to a certain degree both culturally conditioned and socially located, despite my very best attempts to see beyond my limitations. I confess that I see the Gospel of John not as it is, but as I am. Thus, this book is not intended to be a final word on the subject, but rather one professor’s take on how to read and understand the gospel. Still, I hope that what I have written here will prove useful to those who are interested in studying the Gospel of John, be it in a classroom, a Bible study group, or even on their own. Above all, I want to help others become better, more perceptive readers of the Gospel of John, with an ability to trace the rhetoric of the narrative from beginning to end. With that goal in mind and with a view to preparing readers for what this book attempts to do, the rest of this chapter will be devoted to outlining the starting points that will guide our reading of the Gospel of John.

Starting Points

(1) The Gospel of John was originally written for a specific audience at the end of the first century.

It is common for modern people to approach literature—both ancient and modern—without ever asking, “For whom was this originally written?” It is also quite common for people who identify with the Christian tradition to read the New Testament as if Christian believers of any century were the intended audience. These are oversights that beg for correction. One essential starting point when approaching the Gospel of John is the awareness that modern readers are not the originally intended audience. Rather, the audience for whom the gospel was written was likely a community of Jesus-followers living at the end of the first century with a very different language, worldview, thought world, and geographical location than most modern readers—and certainly most readers of this book. While reflecting on our experience with a text is an essential part of the reading process, it is also important for us to ask questions about those for whom the writing was originally intended; this will allow us to understand the message of the Fourth Gospel in new and potentially enlightening ways.

(2) The Gospel of John was originally written in Greek.

The trade language of the Roman world during the first century was Hellenistic Greek (also known as Koinē, the Greek word for “common”). This is the language in which the entire New Testament was written. While most of the standard English translations convey the message of John’s Gospel adequately, there is little doubt that knowledge of the Greek language can serve to inform and enhance the modern reader’s experience with the text. Anyone who has studied another language knows there is no such thing as a one-to-one correspondence between one thought world and another. Sometimes it can be very difficult to take an idea as it is expressed in the idiom of one language and faithfully render that idea into another language. A well-known Italian proverb says, Traduttore traditore (“translator traitor”), which is roughly translated, “every translator is a traitor.” Translators inevitably make interpretive decisions that influence how a given text is read and understood. Throughout this book I will not only make reference to the Greek text of the New Testament, but also to other ancient documents in their original languages. So as to avoid undermining the reader’s confidence in his/her preferred English translation, I reference the Greek only when I think it is absolutely necessary to understand the point under discussion.

(3) The Gospel of John is an anonymous writing.

The moniker “according to John” was apparently applied to this gospel very early—perhaps as early as the second century—but there is no explicit information about the author within the writing itself. Though all four gospels were originally anonymous, each came to be associated with a specific author over time. The traditional view is that the author was John, the son of Zebedee, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples. This view also identifies the anonymous “beloved disciple” (13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20) with the author. Even though it has achieved an almost authoritative status among many modern Christians, this view has been roundly rejected by most contemporary scholars. Not only do we not know who wrote the gospel, but it is also very likely that the gospel was edited multiple times before the final version began to circulate. Throughout this book I will use the terms John, John’s Gospel, and the Gospel of John, all in accord with an established scholarly convention. However, I do not intend these designations to affirm anything about the authorship of the gospel.

(4) The Gospel of John is an autonomous narrative that must be read on its own terms.

Many different presentations of Jesus exist in contemporary culture and this was also true during the first century; we need only look at the four gospels of the New Testament to confirm this. It is common for many to read the four gospels in light of one another, to read in light of the rest of the NT, or even to read in light of a certain theological system or confession. The Gospel of John is a story of Jesus than can stand on its own without the assistance of other gospels (e.g., Matthew, Mark, Luke, Thomas, etc.) or various interpreters of Jesus’ life and vocation (e.g., Paul, James, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, etc.). Only after we have understood John’s unique message about Jesus can we introduce other interpretive voices from the first century or later. This book will look at the unique story of Jesus as it is told in John’s Gospel. We cannot fully appreciate how the writings of the New Testament relate to one another until we have understood the distinctive voice of each. Thus, one goal of this book is simply to “let John be John.”

(5) There is no such thing as a “plain reading” of the Gospel of John.

Though I have already touched on this above, I want to be clear that objectivity is ultimately a myth. When we come to the text we bring ourselves—all of us—to the text. When we study the Bible we pursue an ideal that is practically unachievable: we want to know what the text is saying, what it means. If we are going to read the Gospel of John honestly, we must recognize that each of us brings a great deal to the text. What we bring to the text is often as determinative in finding meaning as what we actually find in the text. More often than not, what we bring to the text is the most decisive factor in determining meaning, whether we realize it or not. As I stated above, we must all recognize the influence of our lenses while seeking to transcend them.

Now that we have laid out the assumptions that will guide our approach, we can proceed to an examination of the gospel itself. Since this book is intended to be a critical introduction for students and lay readers, its primary aim is to provide a strategy for interpreting the gospel in an informed way. The next seven chapters move systematically through issues that must be considered when attempting to read the Gospel of John. Chapter 2 sets the stage for everything else that follows. There we discuss the importance of John’s Prologue (1:1–18), and how to read the entire gospel in light of its introduction. In chapter 3 we look at the two-level drama that unfolds in the narrative—a conversation that draws upon Starting Point 1 above. Chapter 4 will then consider the interesting and potentially troublesome issue of the gospel’s connection to and interaction with first-century Judaism. In chapter 5 we examine the distinctive language used throughout the narrative and what this language communicates about the gospel’s Christology. Chapter 6 takes an in-depth look at how John constructs characters and how those figures contribute to the overall rhetoric of the narrative. Since the ultimate goal of this book—as indicated by its title, Reading John—is to help others read the gospel effectively, there is a seventh chapter in which we pull together insights from the previous chapters and demonstrate how to read a selected passage from the narrative. The final chapter of this book reflects briefly on contemporary theological concerns raised by an informed reading of this important ancient text.