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Rome and the Gospel of John (Part Four)

July 21, 2011

John’s Historical Context and Rhetoric of Distance

Since the publication of J. L Martyn’s groundbreaking work, History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel (1968),[1] Johannine scholars have relied heavily upon the thesis that John’s Gospel provides a two-level story concerned with Jesus and with the struggles of the Johannine community. In other words, the conflicts and concerns of John’s community have been read back into the life of Jesus with the result that the two stories have become intertwined. There is not space here to critique Martyn’s proposal or rehearse the history of its reception among scholars. Suffice it to say that, while some of his original thesis has been qualified or discarded, many scholars still operate under the basic assumption that the Fourth Gospel tells the interrelated stories of Jesus and the Johannine community. Scholars commonly agree that the Gospel’s three references to believers being expelled from the synagogue (9:22; 12:42; 16:2) represent evidence of a conflict within the Johannine community. Since Christ followers were not being expelled from the synagogue during Jesus’ lifetime, this appears to represent a concern for John’s religious community. Among scholars, this element of the narrative remains one key to locating the struggles of John’s community in the Gospel story.

In his book, John and Empire, Warren Carter challenges this dominant scholarly opinion, referring to it as the “sectarian-synagogal reading.” He finds it to be an inadequate interpretive framework that ignores the gospel’s historical context and renders Rome invisible in the process. His basic argument is that those in the Jewish world had learned how to live within the confines of Roman rule while finding ways to resume their life, including their way of worship. The Fourth Evangelist regarded this way of life as too accommodating toward Rome and sought to address this lifestyle by demonstrating how the crucified and resurrected Jesus necessarily challenges Rome’s power and theo-political claims. John accomplishes the challenge to Rome not overtly, but through subtle subtexts as part of a larger “rhetoric of distance.” Carter writes:

With its rhetoric of distance and differentiation, the Gospel seeks to disturb cozy interactions and ready participation in Rome’s world by emphasizing Jesus’ challenge to and conflict with the Roman world, by delineating an either/or dualistic worldview, and by emphasizing the alternative world created by God’s life-giving purposes manifested in Jesus. The Gospel’s rhetoric of distance should not, though, mislead us into thinking that such a differentiated way of life already exists. The Gospel works so hard to create it precisely because levels of accommodation are so high.[2]

In addition, Carter states that the major problem for the sectarian-synagogal reading is that there is little historical evidence outside the Gospel to support it. He examines the historical context—primarily that of Ephesus—to provide a plausible scenario for the use of the gospel and asserts that “John’s rhetoric of distance seeks in part to disturb the Jesus-believers’ general sense of at-homeness in late first-century Ephesus and impose greater distance.”[3]

Carter’s historical reconstruction includes discussions of Revelation, 1 Peter, and Acts 19, after which he concludes that:

[T]he synagogue community in Ephesus in which John’s Jesus-believers participated was in all likelihood reasonably at home in and accommodated to Roman power….The Gospel presents claims about Jesus as troubling for the synagogue’s accommodation, thereby attempting not only to separate Jesus-believers from the synagogue, but also to create a more antithetical relationship between Jesus-believers and the empire.[4]

From there, Carter engages in a lengthy and complex argument in which he attempts to demonstrate Rome’s importance to an effective reading of the Gospel.

Students and scholars of the Fourth Gospel should feel indebted to Carter for making Rome visible in the narrative in a way that reflects the realities of life under Roman rule. He is correct in his assertion that Johannine scholars have long overlooked Rome’s presence in the narrative. Further, his argument is immersed in a strong awareness of Roman political and societal issues as well as a breadth of secondary literature, and these strengths will surely open new vistas for those interested in Rome as it relates to NT studies. Nevertheless, despite the valuable contributions that can be mined from the margins of his work, Carter’s main thesis is problematic for several reasons.

(1) First, I do not believe Carter has provided sufficient reasons to justify a wholesale abandonment of the sectarian-synagogal reading of John. He superficially addresses concerns about synagogue expulsion and intra-community conflict and seemingly only as a means to dismissing it to provide his own interpretive grid. In every generation the majority opinions of scholarship need to be reexamined, if only to remind scholars why those opinions have been so influential. Carter is to be applauded for his attempt to question the consensus, though his alternative to the two-level reading is not convincing.

(2) Second, Carter’s use of Ephesus as the basis for his historical context is also problematic and is one reason why his alternative to the sectarian-synagogal reading is so difficult to accept. His reconstruction focuses solely on the role his reading of John would have played in Roman Ephesus, irrespective of where, and under what circumstances, the Fourth Gospel actually emerged. As a historical reconstruction his argument coheres but it is not self-evident that John’s Gospel arose out of an Ephesian context. Carter uses as a foundation for his argument, evidence that cannot be demonstrated clearly within or outside the Fourth Gospel. Much historical scholarship is speculative, and if the Ephesian context was part of an ancillary point supported by other, more secure historical evidence, Carter’s overall thesis might prove to be more convincing. As it stands, Carter tries to do too much history with too little evidence.

(3) Third, like Thatcher (see previous post), Carter places heavy emphasis on less prominent features of the narrative in order to draw out a political reading while paying insufficient attention to the wider Jewish context of the narrative. This raises a much larger hermeneutical question: Should we pay attention primarily (or only) to the subtleties of a given text while glossing over repeated literary and theological motifs? Perhaps I am opening myself up to the charge of being an unsophisticated reader of the narrative, but my answer to that question is, “surely not.” Subtexts are an important means of textual communication and they should not be overlooked. However, neither should we abandon clear points of emphasis for elements that, frankly, may not even be present in the text. Warren Carter has been one of the leading figures in moving New Testament research into the field of empire studies. In particular, his work on Matthew has been influential for showing that Gospel’s interest in Roman issues. However, as is the case with anyone doing research in the related fields of Biblical and early Christian studies, there is a strong temptation to see our own interests in the texts we examine. Because of his research interests, Carter is conditioned to look for Roman images and themes, and in some of his other published works he has proven particularly adept at it. It seems to me that in the case of John’s Gospel—at least it relates to his main thesis—Carter has found what he was looking for rather than what is actually in (or behind) the text.


[1] See the recently revised and expanded edition: J. Louis Martyn, History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel (New Testament Library; Westminster John Knox, 2003).

[2] Carter, John and Empire, 14.

[3] Ibid., 43.

[4] Ibid., 45 (emphasis added).

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