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Book notes on John’s Gospel

Our recent podcast episode considered the idea of characterisation in John’s Gospel – asking how does John invite us to consider the role different characters play in the Gospel and how is he forming us as readers through that?

In this post we’ll share some of the major works that can help dig deeper into these things.

First, some works that provide helpful tools for understanding characters and their roles in narratives. R. Alan Culpepper’s Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel was a landmark study and provides a really helpful toolkit for thinking about narrators, characters, plot, and so on. Updated works would also include How John Works: Storytelling in the Fourth Gospel, edited by Douglas Estes and Ruth Sheridan (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2016), Anatomies of Narrative Criticism: The Past, Present, and Futures of the Fourth Gospel as Literature edited by Tom Thatcher and Stephen D. Moore (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2008), and Christopher W. Skinner, Characters and Characterization in the Gospel of John (London: T&T Clark, 2013) – see especially Mary Coloe’s wonderful chapter on the Samaritan Woman, which Sydney Tooth mentions in the podcast episode. Some of these insights will have made their way into recent commentaries but they are well worth seeking out if you can find them. 

A broader set of topics in John’s Gospel is covered in Richard Bauckham’s Gospel of Glory: Major Themes in Johannine Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), but of particular interest in relation to the characters in John’s Gospel is a fascinating chapter on “Individualism.” It highlights the way John calls us to an individual response to Christ. John does that through various means, but one is by showing us a whole gallery of individual characters and their encounters with Jesus. Here’s a taster of Bauckham’s conclusions:

The gospel of John is individualistic, rather emphatically so. It draws each individual out of whatever group they may use as a cover for evading responsibility and it invites each individual to respond to the Jesus who meets people where they are and deals with them in all their individual particularity."

In that sense, “individualism” has a right place in our understanding of the Christian life, even if we are sometimes wary of an individualistic streak on modern Western culture. Bauckham threads that needle skilfully as he goes on: 

When the gospel transcends this individualism, as it does, it does not contradict it. The individual is not once again lost either in the collective or the divine. Rather, true individualism is fulfilled in relationality and self-giving. This gospel leads us far, far away from the self-interested self-aggrandising atomistic ego-centrism that constitutes the individualism of our contemporary society."

It’s a wonderful and very counter-cultural direction in which the gospel leads us, and again characters are central in helping us to be formed in these ways. Many people have argued that, but the foremost is probably Cor Bennema and his work on mimesis or imitation in John’s Gospel. See for example, this article in the Tyndale Bulletin. The key insight is that when John seeks to lead us away from that atomistic ego-centrism, he doesn’t primarily give instruction, but he holds up different characters for our reflection and imitation. 

Centrally, of course, he shows us, in unparalleled depth, the relationship between the Father and Son and the relationship between Jesus and his people, an overflowing cascade of love and generosity which pours from Father to Son and on from the Son to his people. So if you want to understand what it means to love another then watch the characters closely – the Father, giving every good gift to his Son, the Son, taking the towel and washing his disciples’ feet. 

As we started to get into right at the end of the podcast, that becomes an ongoing pattern in the life of the church. The imitation theme appears in 3 John where the Elder and Gaius and Demetrius all are models worthy of imitation in different ways, and the character of Diotrophes is a cautionary tale; the love of being first on display. If you want to follow that theme through from John’s Gospel to his letters, check out David Shaw’s recent article in Themelios called “The Eagle Has Landed.”


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