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Characters and Characterization in the Fourth Gospel (Part Four)

June 16, 2012

The previous post looked at the rise of narrative criticism and its impact on character studies. This post takes a look at character studies in the past 10 years.

IV. Characters and Theories (2003—Present)

Over the past decade, there has been a surge of interest in the characters of the Fourth Gospel,[1] and in the past six years alone, no less than eight monographs have appeared, most of which advance a specific method for approaching Johannine characters.  In 2006, Philip Esler and Ronald Piper drew on social-identity theory to examine the siblings of Bethany.[2] They found that Lazarus, Mary, and Martha function as important prototypes or ideal characters for the audience of the Fourth Gospel. In 2007, Judith Hartenstein’s Marburg dissertation, Charakterisierung im Dialog, used a narrative approach to examine Mary Magdalene, Peter, and the mother of Jesus both in the Fourth Gospel and in other early Christian texts (including the Synoptics and the Gospel of Thomas).[3] She sees John’s presentation of characters as more complex than is usually suggested but notes that characters change very little throughout the story. Also appearing in 2007 was Bradford Blaine’s revised dissertation, Peter in the Gospel of John.[4] Like Hartenstein, Blaine also employs a narrative-critical approach that takes seriously both the gospel’s sources and its historical setting. Blaine’s study is driven by the concern to refute the common opinion that the Fourth Gospel presents Peter in a substantially negative light.

Three more monographs on Johannine characterization were published in 2009. The first to appear was my revised dissertation, John and Thomas: Gospels in Conflict?,[5] which sought to analyse Johannine characters with a view to evaluating the thesis that the Fourth Gospel contains an ‘anti-Thomas polemic’. After looking at Thomas, Peter, Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, Mary, Martha, Philip, Judas (not Iscariot), and the disciples as a representative group, I concluded that the Johannine presentation of Thomas is part of a wider literary pattern within the story where characters misunderstand the mission and message of Jesus, and thus the charge of an ‘anti-Thomas polemic’ is unfounded. I also contend that misunderstanding should be one of the primary foci guiding our understanding of John’s characters. The next book to appear in 2009 was Susan Hylen’s Imperfect Believers.[6] Hylen examines Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, the disciples, the Jews, Martha, Mary, Peter, and the Beloved Disciple, and draws out an important element of their characterization—ambiguity. She argues that it is difficult to discern whether John’s characters exercise a satisfactory belief in Jesus. Many characters seem to grasp important insights about Jesus but fail to believe or understand in other key areas. Thus, ambiguity is the lens through which we should view John’s characters. Cornelis Bennema’s book, Encountering Jesus,[7] also appeared in 2009, and that work more than any of the aforementioned volumes, demonstrates a concern for an overarching theory of character. Bennema considers nearly all of John’s characters using a method that categorizes characters into one of four categories: agent (or actant), type (or stock character), character with personality, or individual (or person). In addition to his classification system, Bennema’s discussion of each character is accompanied by a chart that plots the character’s appearances, identity, speech and actions, character classification, degree of characterization, and response to Jesus. More than any other recent scholar, Bennema has demonstrated a concern for developing a comprehensive theory of character—a topic to which he returns in my forthcoming volume.

In his 2010 dissertation, Nicolas Farelly used narrative analysis to examine the faith and comprehension of five Johannine disciples—Peter, Judas, the Beloved Disciple, Thomas, and Mary Magdalene.[8] Farelly asserts that the disciples have genuine faith and life from a very early point in the narrative, but thereafter struggle to come to terms fully with Jesus’ identity, words, and mission. Also appearing in 2010 was Michael Martin’s dissertation, Judas and the Rhetoric of Comparison.[9] Martin situates the negative depiction of Judas in the Fourth Gospel in the context of the ancient practice of genus syncrisis, or the comparison of types. This practice compares two real-world groups by comparing ideal or extreme representatives from each group. This practice, argues Martin, creates a two-level drama in which it is possible to see both the superiority of one literary type and apply this superiority to the group the character in question represents. These more recent studies have given way to a concern for developing a theory of character as it applies to the characters of the Fourth Gospel.

Though not a movement within narrative criticism per se, Richard Bauckham’s theory of eyewitness testimony in the gospels also deserves mention in our survey. In his 2008 monograph, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses,[10] Bauckham argued that the canonical gospels are best understood against the background of ancient historiography in which the best historical practice was to rely on eyewitness testimony (au0topsia). Challenging the form-critical position that the gospel material about Jesus circulated in oral form for a lengthy period in the church before it was recorded by the evangelist, Bauckham asserts that the gospels were based largely on eyewitness testimony; he also contends that John was actually composed by an eyewitness—John the elder rather than one of the twelve.[11] Bauckham’s thesis has implications for character studies inasmuch as eyewitness testimony would suggest that specific gospel characters reflect a historical individuality rather than a carefully crafted narrative creation. For these reasons, and because Bauckham’s argument has proven influential among a segment of scholars, it needs to be discussed here.

Bauckham’s work on eyewitness testimony in the gospels is characteristically brilliant, but his thesis has proven to be problematic. He insists that reliance on eyewitnesses played a determining role in securing reliable Jesus tradition in the first decades of the early church. Narrative-critical approaches to the gospels of the NT stand on the shoulders of the substantive contributions of source, form, and redaction criticisms. Thus, it is commonly affirmed that the canonical gospels developed over time as part of a lengthy process of compiling written and oral material (source and form criticism), editorial activity (redaction criticism), and creative shaping of the received stories (narrative criticism). This process results in a set of theologically stylized narratives with historical roots; these narratives reflect sophisticated storytelling, internal unity, and a theology unique to the individual account. If, as Bauckham contends, eyewitnesses are responsible for the content of the gospels, this would rob the individual evangelists of the creativity that seems to be a characteristic element of each canonical account of Jesus. For example, in the Gospel of John, characters consistently misunderstand the mission and message of Jesus. Whereas this is a component elsewhere in the Synoptic tradition, it is a driving motif in Fourth Gospel characterization. From a narrative-critical standpoint, this appears to be a fairly obvious literary theme, woven into the narrative as part of the evangelist’s intentional theological presentation. Against this backdrop, Bauckham’s theory would suggest that such an obvious element of literary design derives from the life and vocation of the historical Jesus, rather than from the final stage of the gospel’s composition.


[1] See the following essays (in order of appearance): James M. Howard, ‘The Significance of Minor Characters in the Gospel of John’, BSac 163 (2006), pp. 63-78; Humphrey Mwangi Waweru, ‘Jesus and Ordinary Women in the Gospel of John: An African Perspective’, Swedish Missiological Themes 96 (2008), pp. 139-59; Andrew T. Lincoln, ‘The Lazarus Story: A Literary Perspective’, in Richard Bauckham and Carl Mosser (eds.), The Gospel of John and Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), pp. 211-32; Marianne Meye Thompson, ‘The Raising of Lazarus in John 11: A Theological Reading’, in Bauckham and Mosser (eds.), The Gospel of John and Christian Theology, pp. 233-44; Ruben Zimmerman, ‘The Narrative Hermeneutics of John 11: Learning With Lazarus How to Understand Death, Life, and Resurrection’, in Craig Koester and Reimund Bieringer (eds.), The Resurrection of Jesus in the Gospel of John (WUNT, I/222; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008), pp. 75-101; Steven A. Hunt, ‘Nicodemus, Lazarus, and the Fear of the “the Jews” in the Fourth Gospel’, in Gilbert van Belle, Michael Labahn, and P. Maritz (eds.), Repetition and Variation in the Fourth Gospel: Style, Text, Interpretation (Louvain: Peeters, 2009), pp. 199-212; William M. Wright IV, ‘Greco-Roman Character Typing and the Presentation of Judas in the Fourth Gospel’, CBQ 71 (2009), pp. 544-59; Cornelis Bennema, ‘The Character of John in the Fourth Gospel’, JETS 52 (2009), pp. 271-84; idem, ‘The Identity and Composition of hoi Ioudaioi in the Gospel of John’, TynBul 60 (2009), pp. 239-63.

[2] Philip Esler and Ronald Piper, Lazarus, Mary and Martha: A Social-Scientific and Theological Reading of John (London: SCM, 2006).

[3] Judith Hartenstein, Charakterisierung im Dialog: Maria Magdalena, Petrus, und die Mutter Jesu im Johannesevangelium (NTOA, 64; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007).

[4] Bradford B. Blaine, Jr., Peter in the Gospel of John: The Making of an Authentic Disciple (AcBib, 27; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007).

[5] Christopher W. Skinner, John and Thomas: Gospels in Conflict? Johannine Characterization and the Thomas Question (PTMS, 115; Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 2009).

[6] Susan Hylen, Imperfect Believers: Ambiguous Characters in the Gospel of John (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).

[7] Cf. n. 23 above for full bibliographic information.

[8] Nicolas Farelly, The Disciples in the Fourth Gospel (WUNT, II/290: Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010).

[9] Michael W. Martin, Judas and the Rhetoric of Comparison in the Fourth Gospel (NTM, 25; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2010).

[10] See Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospel as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

[11] See his argument in ibid., pp. 358-83.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. June 16, 2012 11:59 pm

    I found this post hard to follow at times. What, for example, do you mean by “Thus, ambiguity is the lens through which we should view John’s characters”? Does it mean anything? Also, you say that Bauckham’s view is problematic, but fail to explain why. Have I missed something?

    • June 17, 2012 12:19 am

      Richard, many thanks for following the post even where it is difficult to understand. First, yes, it does mean something to say that Hylen regards ambiguity as the primary lens through which to view Johannine characters. It means that she sees this as the primary characteristic of John’s characters and we should look for ways in which those characters display conflicting (and therefore ambiguous) responses to Jesus. Second, I have tried (perhaps unsuccessfully) to explain the final paragraph of the post why Bauckham’s theory is “problematic.” I think it is implausible to suggest that eyewitnesses stand behind individual characters when they seem to be shaped around specific literary and theological motifs. I hope this makes sense. Thanks again for reading.

  2. fellowsrichard permalink
    June 17, 2012 12:36 am

    I’m not getting it yet. Are you saying that if John the elder were the author of the fourth gospel, he would not have described the characters as misunderstanding the mission and message of Jesus”? If so, why?

    • June 17, 2012 12:46 am

      Richard, that is not at all what I am suggesting. I am arguing that the presentation of Johannine characters as consistently misunderstanding the message, mission, and identity of Jesus is a purposefully crafted literary motif that has been generated by the composer(s) of the Fourth Gospel (be it John the elder or someone else). It seems implausible to me that each one of these characters is rooted in some historical remembrance that the author has had and that, in their historical likenesses, they conformed to the pattern of incomprehension that consistently runs through the gospel story. I am admittedly approaching this discussion as a narrative critic. That might be where the misunderstanding is taking place between us. I see this motif as a literary creation, not as something rooted so strongly in history.

  3. fellowsrichard permalink
    June 17, 2012 1:59 am

    If I have understood you correctly, you are saying that it is unlikely that the historical characters misunderstood Jesus consistently. But why could an eyewitness not have invented the “literary creation” that you see? And why could an eyewitness not have selected stories from his memory that presented the characters as misunderstanding Jesus? That is to say, why could selection bias not have been responsible for our text?

    • June 17, 2012 2:25 am

      The eyewitness theory is an alternative to the position that I am advocating. Bauckham’s argument (as I see it) is meant to bolster the historical reliability of the gospels and (at least in this case), I’m not interested in that. I am interested in the final form of the text as a whole cloth (or whole utterance in the case of texts that were orally recited/performed). I don’t think it is impossible that an eyewitness could have invented the literary creation. I just think it improbable. Using Occam’s Razor, what need do we have to keep multiplying variables? All things considered, the simplest explanation is often the best. Sure, an eyewitness could have carefully selected from a large pool of people who interacted with Jesus and chosen those who misunderstood. I just think that’s highly unlikely given other alternatives. It’s not an issue of impossibility but improbability as I see it.

  4. fellowsrichard permalink
    June 17, 2012 2:42 am

    I am in agreement that we need to minimize assumptions, but it is not clear to me that your hypothesis involves fewer assumptions than the alternatives, including the ones that I floated. Why is it to be expected that a community of non-eyewitnesses would invent such a literary motif? How can that be demonstrated while avoiding the viscous circularity involved in reconstructing such a community from the text and then explaining the text as a creation of the community? Are there any parallel examples (e.g. from other faiths) where early disciples are falsely portrayed as misunderstanding the founder?

    • June 17, 2012 2:48 am

      For the record, I am not arguing the there is no eyewitness testimony in the Fourth Gospel. I am arguing, however, that it is unlikely that eyewitnesses stand behind each of the characters in the gospel. That’s the issue I am disputing. However, to address another Bauckham argument, I do not buy the idea that the Gospels were written for “all Christians.” I do think there was a Johannine community (as evidenced by three epistles) and the FG was written in, by, and for that community. So, to summarize, I don’t think a community of non-eyewitnesses has invented this motif. I do think the author(s) of the gospel crafted this motif for rhetorical impact. The Beloved Disciple is the one character who gets it right every time. The audience is presented with a spate of uncomprehending characters and ONE nameless beloved disciple. The reader is to emulate this character, and thereby become another “beloved disciple.” I discuss this at length in my first book (which was a revision of my dissertation).

  5. fellowsrichard permalink
    June 17, 2012 3:11 am

    Thanks for the clarifications.

    One could suppose that it would be natural for the author, the Beloved Disciple, to present himself as being the one who got things right. His anonymity prevents this from becoming boasting. I haven’t thought it all through: I’m just saying that more needs to be done to refute the alternative hypotheses. But perhaps you have done that elsewhere.

    On the subject of whether the gospels were written for all Christians, there is a recent paper (in Spanish), which shows that Acts expected its readers to already know Alexander, Jason, and the hall of Tyrannus. I would add Sosthenes to that list. These people are centered on Ephesus, suggesting that the intended audience of Acts was the church of Ephesus. I have discussed this on my blog here.

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