New Readings in John: Literary and Theological Perspectives. Essays from the Scandinavian Conference on the Fourth Gospel (JSNTSSup. 182)

Written by Johannes Nissen; Sigfred Pedersen (Eds.) Reviewed By Rainer Behrens

As the title says, the book is a collection of essays that originated from the indicated conference. I shall summarise all twelve contributions briefly before highlighting some important aspects of the volume as a whole.

Helge Kjær Nielsen, Johannine Research, gives an overview of recent research, taking into account some 75 monographs and articles. He focuses on major studies from the 1990s while also referring to important earlier work. The emphasis is on the main movements in Johannine research and succeeds in giving a good introduction to the field.

Geert Hallbäck, The Gospel of John as Literature: Literary Readings of the Fourth Gospel, describes five literary approaches (by Aage Henriksen, Frank Kermode, R. Alan Culpepper, Jeffrey Staley, Mark Stibbe). His own view of John’s Gospel as a presentation of two unpolemical stories (story one: Jesus as healer, transforming Judaism; story two: Jesus as revealer of glory) does not seem to be too convincing in the light of the clear instances of polemic noticed by many Johannine scholars.

René Kieffer, The Implied Reader in John’s Gospel, presents evidence from the overall structure of the Gospel and from various authorial narrative strategies that shows that the implied readers are invited to become ideal readers, (Kieffer uses the categories of P.J. Rabinowitz). The ideal reader is the one who accepts the implied author’s ideology, which means in the case of John’s Gospel to accept the author’s ideology about Jesus’ uniqueness.

Kirsten Nielsen, Old Testament Imagery in John, uses a restricted notion of intertextuality that leads him to look at ‘those texts which in John are clearly employed as intertexts’. He takes the image of the vine and of the shepherd as examples of a three-step approach consisting of (1) ‘an examination of the non-image meaning’; (2) the discovery of particular traditions or stories linked to the image; and (3) the interpretation of the image ‘both in its immediate context and in its New Testament intertextuality’.

Trond Skard Dokka, Irony and Sectarianism in the Gospel of John, selects these two related topics of Johannine research in order to point out some problems inherent in the majority views on them and gives a sketch of his alternative view, which includes observations of the different ways Johannine language functions for initiated and non-initiated readers and reflections on the theological significance.

Ismo Dunderberg, Johannine Anomalies and the Synoptics, looks at some difficulties in John 1–6 in order to find out whether they make it likely (a) that John knew the Synoptics, and/or (b) that John expected his readers to read the text in light of the Synoptics. He confirms the former and rejects the latter.

Aage Pilgaard, The Qumran Scrolls and John’s Gospel, does not think that there is any direct influence of the Qumran literature on John’s Gospel (he favours the idea of indirect influence through former disciples of John the Baptist), but he picks out the themes of dualism and predestination and the temple metaphor to show how comparisons with Qumran texts can illuminate reading John.

Birger Olsson, Deus semper maior? On God in the Johannine Writings, explores four prominent statements about God in 1 John and John’s Gospel (the true God, God is light, spirit, love) and draws conclusions with respect to theological topics like incarnation, monotheism, dualism, and new covenant. He shows both how John’s theology is rooted in the OT world of thought and how this world is transcended.

Sigfred Pedersen, Anti-Judaism in John’s Gospel: John 8, shows how John’s universalism, rooted in creation theology, impacts the presentation of ‘the Jews’ in John 8: ‘The power of the creation language thus lies in its placing all as equal in relation to God as Creator—and thus implicitly all as equal in relation to Satan as his opponent and slanderer. Jesus’ adversaries in John 8 are therefore not called “Children of the devil” because of their ethnic origin as Jews, but because they represent a false understanding of what it means existentially as God’s children to be the seed of Abraham.’

Johannes Nissen, Community and Ethics in the Gospel of John, paints a balanced picture of the Johannine community and its moral vision by not restricting ethics to moral exhortations (some insights of R.B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, are used). He takes into account the historical situation of alienation and threat from the synagogue which he sees as an influential factor in the vision of mutual love within the community of believers. However, he emphasises that this love does not exclude a concern for those outside the community, since the community of love is meant to function counter-culturally as a witness to the world.

Johannes Nissen, Mission in the Fourth Gospel: Historical and Hermeneutical Perspectives, emphasises the close connection between incarnation, resurrection, and mission in John’s Gospel. He sees sending and gathering as dual aspects of mission. He further acknowledges John’s universalism as an important factor of his concept of mission and makes some interesting suggestions how this concept may inform contemporary missiology.

Helge Kjær Nielsen, John’s Understanding of the Death of Jesus, argues against those who deny that the death of Jesus is important in John’s Gospel. It has soteriological significance especially in the sense of establishing fellowship with Jesus and consequently fellowship with other believers. He remains cautious, however, when it comes to labeling this significance in terms of a vicarious and expiatory death.

The essays give good insights into current Johannine scholarship. They show awareness of recent methodological trends and their problems (for instance the concept of intertextuality as used by Kirsten Nielsen and Ismo Dunderberg). They are generally critical of some one-sided approaches to John (for instance Dokka’s remarks on irony and sectarianism, emphasising that dualism does not necessarily entail sectarianism), and give examples of how to address theological questions and even their contemporary relevance without neglecting historical and literary problems (particularly the contributions by Johannes Nissen). It is also Interesting that in several articles ecclesiological questions are addressed which go beyond the limits of the quest for the ‘Johannine community’ (see the contributions of Kirsten Nielsen, Trond Dokka, Sigfred Pedersen, and again especially Johannes Nissen). The reader is also rewarded by getting valuable and comprehensive bibliographical information. I would recommend the volume as a whole as being most useful.

Rainer Behrens