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Characters and Characterization in the Fourth Gospel (Part Three)

June 15, 2012

In my previous post I looked at the theory of “representative figures” in the Gospel of John. In this post I consider the rise of narrative criticism and the implications of narrative-critical theory for Fourth Gospel character studies.

Movement #2: Culpepper and the Rise of Narrative Criticism

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of Culpepper’s Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel (1983) to contemporary Johannine research.[1] In the late 1970s and early 1980s, redaction criticism had become the dominant interpretive framework within which Gospel scholars were working. Within Johannine studies scholars were particularly concerned with proposing various source theories, identifying concrete stages in the gospel’s development, and connecting the dots between the so-called Johannine community and John’s Sitz im Leben. Aided by a strong awareness of contemporary literary theory as applied in everyday English courses, Culpepper undertook an analysis of the literary design of John’s Gospel. As pedestrian as it now seems, it was ground-breaking at that time to insist that the narrative be read as a coherent story with emphasis primarily on the world within the text. Such an approach was truly novel in the world of scholarship obsessed with both the sources and stages of the gospel’s development. That said, Culpepper’s chapter on characters, the second longest in the book, did not stray far from the predominant discussions taking place in literary circles at that time. Of particular importance to his treatment of Johannine characters were categories set forth in Collins’s two articles as well as discussions found in the works of Seymour Chatman, E. M. Forster, and W. J. Harvey.

a. Chatman’s Story and Discourse

In his influential book, Story and Discourse, Seymour Chatman addressed the dichotomy between characters as representations of reality and characters as mere plot functionaries, preferring the former. This debate over ‘realist’ and ‘purist’ approaches continues to be an important area of discussion among literary critics. The realist (or mimetic) approach argues that characters ‘acquire an independence from the plot in which they occur, and that characters can be discussed apart from their literary contexts’. Practically, this means that characters can be extracted from their narrative worlds and treated as real people in hypothetical situations in the real world. This approach is primarily associated with the Romantic writers of the nineteenth century, and finds fewer advocates today among theoreticians.

The other side of the discussion is represented by the purist (or functional) approach, which rejects the idea that characters can be taken out of their literary contexts or viewed in hypothetical, non-literary situations as autonomous individuals. The purist view is derived from an Aristotelian understanding of character. According to Aristotle, ‘action’ is the most important element in any dramatic presentation; the secondary element in the drama is the agent who performs the action. The Aristotelian approach to characterization almost completely subjugates the character to the action performed, and in so doing reduces the character to a formless agent. Chatman notes that ‘Aristotle’s general formulation of character and characterization is not appropriate to a general theory of narrative, although, as usual, he provokes questions that cannot be ignored’. If Aristotle’s categories raise the question of the character’s importance, the modern purist approach builds on that foundation by raising the question of the character’s autonomy apart from the narrative in which that character originally appears.

Culpepper acknowledged that Chatman’s study, while valuable, had limited implications for the study of the Fourth Gospel, since ‘most of the characters in it appear so briefly that it is difficult to form an impression of them as “autonomous beings”’. Practically, this meant that, for Culpepper, most Johannine characters are reduced more to the role of plot functionaries.

b. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel

In his classic work, Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster asked whether characters should be viewed as human beings, historical persons, or something else altogether. Prefiguring the conclusions of the purist camp, Forster concluded that characters should not be extracted from the narrative and given unconditional autonomy. However, Forster’s deeper concern in posing the question was to understand how characters function with respect to the other elements of the narrative. This is the context in which Forster set forth his well-known distinction between ‘round’ and ‘flat’ characters. According to Forster, ‘round’ characters are those prominent figures in any story that display a host of potentially conflicting traits, while ‘flat’ characters are predictable and one-dimensional. Using these categories, one might refer to the Jesus of John’s Gospel as ‘round’ inasmuch as he displays a host of emotional characteristics and complex motivations. One might also refer to the uncomprehending characters of the Fourth Gospel as ‘flat’ inasmuch as they are primarily defined by their consistent misperception of the mission and message of Jesus. To do this, however, would be to overstate the case.

Though Culpepper cited Forster’s categories approvingly in his discussion of character in Anatomy, many narrative critics today have found this dichotomy to be problematic in that it too rigidly compartmentalizes characters that seem to exist on a more expansive spectrum. For this reason, the distinction between round and flat characters, though widely referenced, has fallen out of favour with NT scholars employing a narrative approach. Strict adherence to these two categories would fail to recognize the complexity in many of the minor characters found in the canonical gospels. Seemingly flat characters can express genuine insights and be momentarily transformed into characters with ‘rounded edges’. In the Fourth Gospel this is particularly true of Nicodemus, who early in the narrative displays an inability to understand Jesus’ message and mission (3.1-15) but later appears as a follower of (or at least sympathizer with) the crucified Jesus (19.38-42). His seemingly ‘flat’ characteristic of misperception is ‘rounded’ by the narrator to indicate not just a new characteristic (i.e., belief) but rather a genuine, thoroughly Johannine transformation. Burnett expresses this concept well when he writes that it ‘seems best to speak of degrees of characterization in biblical texts, and to plot textual indicators on a continuum for any particular text, from words at one pole to “persons” at the other pole’. This continuum must include at least three categories: (1) agents, which have little or no development and function essentially to advance the plot; (2) types, which have differing levels of character development and typically reveal a prominent, mainly static trait; and (3) full-blown characters with differing levels of direct and indirect characterization. Each of these individual categories must also be understood to exist on a continuum.

c. Harvey’s Character and the Novel

In Anatomy, Culpepper also referenced W. J. Harvey’s classification of characters into protagonists, intermediate characters (e.g., cards and ficelles), and background characters. Harvey’s categories—particularly protagonist and ficelle—seemed to fit in nicely with Culpepper’s classification of Johannine characters. Jesus is the clear protagonist of the story, while most of other characters function as ficelles—‘typical characters easily recognizable by the readers. They exist to serve specific plot functions, often revealing the protagonist, and may carry a great deal of representative or symbolic value’.

These basic categories (mimetic v. functional, round v. flat, protagonist v. ficelle) were the building blocks of Culpepper’s brief exposition of characterization. From there he provided character analyses of Jesus and three groups of characters—the disciples, the ‘Jews’, and other minor characters— with little further discussion devoted to a theory of character. For a considerable period after the publication of Anatomy, little work was done toward the development of a comprehensive theory of character, though studies of individual characters proliferated.

In my next post I will continue to explore narrative criticism and its specific impact on Johannine character studies.


[1] Thatcher states it well when he writes that ‘the most enduring contribution of Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel rose from its point where the book diverged most sharply from the mainstream of its day: the thesis that John’s story is inherently meaningful, regardless of its sources, composition history, or historical value. At a time when scholars were deeply absorbed in speculations about literary sources, the Johannine community, and the number of revisions leading up to the present text, Culpepper boldly declared that a close reading of the Gospel of John as a unified narrative could produce striking new insights’ (Tom Thatcher, ‘Anatomies of the Fourth Gospel: Past, Present, and Future Probes’, in Thatcher and Moore [eds.], Anatomies of Narrative Criticism, p. 1).


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