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Characters and Characterization in the Fourth Gospel (Part Two)

June 12, 2012

Over the past three decades biblical scholarship has been increasingly open to the application of literary theory to the narratives of the Hebrew Bible and the NT. Since the late 1970s, literary methods have been applied to the Biblical narratives from seemingly every conceivable angle and the results have been nothing short of dramatic. In the new millennium narrative criticism and its related hermeneutical trajectories have become organic elements within the exegetical process even when practitioners are unaware of their methodological choice.

Within Gospel studies narrative criticism traces its formative stages back to the early 1980s. In 1983, R. Alan Culpepper published his seminal work, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, which, along with Rhoads’ and Michie’s Mark as Story (1982), helped usher in a new era in NT scholarship. The resulting paradigm shift forced students of the NT narratives to consider the text in its final form before (and in some cases, apart from) the historical-critical questions that too often led to a fragmented reading of the text. Though the past three decades have yielded a girth of scholarly contributions to the study of numerous aspects of the NT narratives, comparatively little has been done in the area of characterization until very recently. In these posts I want to trace major movements in character studies in research on the Fourth Gospel from the mid-1970s to the current day. In this post I would like to begin with a discussion of representative figures.

Movement #1: Representative Figures

 The 1976 publication of Raymond F. Collins’ study of ‘representative figures’ in John marked an important development in Johannine character studies. [1] In two essays, Collins—writing from within the Roman Catholic tradition—scrutinized a burgeoning tradition among historical critical scholars that regarded Fourth Gospel characters as symbolic or representative types rather than historical persons. Despite the overall tendency among Roman Catholic exegetes to view most of John’s characters in their historical individuality, there had been a movement within the same group to regard the mother of Jesus (2.1-11; 19.25-27) as a type of the Church, a model of faith, or even an eschatological presentation of ‘woman’. Outside the Catholic exegetical tradition, others had argued that the Beloved Disciple (13.18-30; 18.15-18; 20.3-10; 21.20-23) represented either the disciple par excellence or an ideal response of faith to Jesus. Some scholars even argued that the Beloved Disciple represented the Johannine church in its superiority over the Petrine tradition. Still others had seen Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, Nathanael, and Thomas, among others, as performing a representative role in the gospel. Collins attempted to consider the possible merits of symbolic interpretation while also keeping his discussion in the context of historical-critical inquiry. Situating his study against the backdrop of John’s Sitz im Leben, Collins argued:

[W]ithin the life-situation of the Johannine church we ought to envision a series of homilies directed to enkindling faith in Jesus. In the development of these homilies, various persons were chosen from the common gospel tradition or selected from his own tradition by the homilist in order to illustrate some point about the nature of faith, or lack of it, in Jesus Christ. . . .[T]hey have been selected from the homiletic tradition of the Johannine tradition to teach the evangelist’s readers something about that faith in Jesus Christ which is life-giving.[2]

According to Collins, major Johannine characters embody a dominant trait that is intended by the Evangelist to represent a certain type of faith response to Jesus. These types are further meant to function as models for the audience to emulate or reject based upon the narrative’s call to believe and follow the Johannine Jesus (cf. e.g., 20.31). Though Collins’s argument is built largely upon redaction-critical criteria and the concept of ‘individualism’ in John, he demonstrates a sensitivity to the literary integrity of the gospel that anticipates the rise of narrative-critical method. He writes:

[T]he very literary style which characterizes the Fourth Gospel should lead the interpreter and reader to question the symbolic characters of the individuals who appear within its twenty-one chapters. I would therefore propose that the individualism of the Fourth Gospel is a key to its interpretation, not in the sense that it determines the realized eschatology which is characteristic of the Gospel. . . .but in the sense that it provides a basic insight into the meaning of the Gospel, the tradition that lay behind it, and the purpose for which it was compiled’. [3]

Perhaps unwittingly, Collins helped move Johannine character studies closer to the type of narrative analysis that would begin to take shape a few years later. The more carefully nuanced representative approach advocated by Collins also became an interpretive option for understanding the function of Fourth Gospel characters in subsequent scholarship.

For example, in 1983, Margaret Pamment published an essay exploring the role of the Beloved Disciple in John.[4] Though her article contains no citations (and therefore it is difficult to ascertain what research was informing her argument), Pamment’s discussion relies heavily on a representative understanding of character. She notes that Nicodemus ‘represents the secret admirer rather than the open advocate’, and that calling him ‘the Pharisee who came to Jesus by night’ would have ‘emphasized his representative character’.[5] She also acknowledges that the evangelist uses names ‘in cases where the representative character of the individual or group is important, and where naming individuals would distract from the centre of interest in Jesus’.[6] Like Collins, Pamment regards Johannine characters as archetypal figures embodying a dominant trait that symbolizes a specific, hoped-for response from the audience. She also seems to have an appreciation for the Gospel’s literary integrity though she sets forth her argument without a specific discussion of the literary dimensions of the text.

In another essay from 1983, W. R. Domeris explores the ‘Johannine Drama’, finding a number of parallels between the gospel and Greek tragedy.[7] Regarding Fourth Gospel characters, Domeris notes: ‘As John introduces each of his main characters, Nathanael, Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, Martha, Thomas, and others, we become aware. . . .[that] they serve a representative function’.[8] Thus,

Nathanael represents the view of the true Israelite (cf. 1:47), who recognizes Jesus as the messianic king and the fulfillment of the hope of the Old Testament (cf. 1:45); Nicodemus represents the secret disciples, who for fear of the Jews, choose to remain within the confines of the Synagogue (cf. 12:42f); Martha, Peter, the blind man and Thomas represent the true believers, who come to Jesus and discover in him eternal life. . . .The confessions, which occur at key points, are clearly constructed to depict the point of view of the represented community.[9]

Though it is outside the scope of this survey, an examination of commentaries, monographs, and other literature of this period would reveal that the view advocated by Collins became an increasingly important position among scholars during the two decades that followed his essays. It should also be noted that, when it was first articulated, Culpepper’s discussion of character in Anatomy stood squarely on the shoulders of Collins’s contributions. Prior to the rise of narrative criticism within Gospel studies, the representative model was one of the more important approaches to understanding Johannine characters.

More recent work on Johannine characterization has identified two inherent weaknesses in the representative approach. First, the model tends to categorize characters in a way that fails to account for the complexity that we find in many Johannine figures. The work of Fred W. Burnett and Cornelis Bennema has been particularly helpful for bringing this weakness to light. Second, there is a general lack of unanimity among scholars as to what trait the representative figures actually embody. In other words, it has proven difficult to arrive at a consensus on the representative function of each supposedly representative figure. Despite these weaknesses, however, the representative approach has not been completely abandoned in contemporary Johannine scholarship, and some have even found it compatible with a literary approach.


[1] The articles first appeared as ‘The Representative Figures of the Fourth Gospel, Part I’, Downside Review 94 (1976), pp. 26-46; idem, ‘The Representative Figures of the Fourth Gospel, Part II’, Downside Review 94 (1976), pp.118-32 (reprinted together as ‘Representative Figures’, in idem, These Things Have Been Written: Studies on the Fourth Gospel [Leuven: Peeters/Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990], pp. 1-45).

[2] Collins, ‘Representative Figures’, pp. 7-8.

[3] Ibid., p. 4 (emphasis added).

[4] Margaret Pamment, ‘The Fourth Gospel’s Beloved Disciple’, Expository Times 94 (1983), pp. 363-67.

[5] Ibid., 364 (emphasis added).

[6] Ibid. (emphasis added).

[7] W. R. Domeris, ‘The Johannine Drama’, Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 42 (1983), pp. 29-35.

[8] Ibid., p. 32 (emphasis added).

[9] Ibid (emphasis added).

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