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“The World” as a Character in the Fourth Gospel

February 23, 2011

I’m doing some research right now on the use of kosmos in the Fourth Gospel, with specific emphasis on how “the world” functions as a Johannine character. As far as I can tell, kosmos in John refers both to the material reality of the created order, and to the realm of the “below”  into which Jesus (the one “from above”) has entered. However, it also functions metonymically as a symbol for humanity.

In 1:10 we read:  “He was in the world (created  order) and though the world (created order) was made through him, the world (humanity) did not know him.

Then, 1:11 says nearly the same thing using different vocabulary: He came to his own place (ta idia – i.e., the realm of the “below”) but his own people (hoi idioi – i.e., humanity) did not receive him.

As a narrative critic I work from the premise that the Prologue (1:1-18) sets the literary and theological agenda for the rest of the gospel. Therefore, these two verses serve as a prediction of what will come in the narrative. This is exactly what takes place as the story unfolds. Throughout the gospel, humans (individual representatives of “the world” = humanity) interact with Jesus and consistently misunderstand his mission, message, and/or identity. In this way, the “world” as a character group seems to be a broader category into which many lesser characters in the narrative fit.

Both Lars Kierspel and Cornelis Bennema have treated “the world” as a character group but both (in my opinion) focus too narrowly on the connection between the world (ho kosmos) and “the Jews” (hoi Ioudaioi). While there is a strong connection between the two representative groups–especially later in the Gospel–it seems to me that kosmos is the macrocosm of which many (if not most) Johannine characters are representative parts.

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