The Questions of Jesus in John: Logic, Rhetoric, and Persuasive Discourse

Written by Douglas Estes Reviewed By Ardel B. Caneday

Because Jesus’ (1) first words (“What do you seek?”), (2) first post-resurrection words (“Woman, why are you weeping?”), and (3) last words (“What is it to you?”) recorded in John’s Gospel are all questions, Douglas Estes takes note that this is hardly coincidental or insignificant. This observation offers credibility to his claim that the use of questions is the most frequently recurring narrative device in John’s Gospel with structural qualities. Nevertheless, scholars generally overlook John’s questions as they incline toward treating Jesus’ questions as propositions, reading them to identify what Jesus says rather than what he asks.

Do we not overlook the importance of the questions John’s Jesus poses? Western readers are “biased against questions” (p. 3), despite classical scholars who realized that the “logic and rhetoric of questions . . . can often convey more truth and meaning than naked propositions” (p. 9). Questions assist a narrative’s development by (1) structuring narratives, (2) carrying dialogue between characters but also between narrator and reader, and (3) rhetorically engaging readers in the classical sense to persuade them. John uses questions to convince readers to “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” that they might have life in his name (pp. 11–12).

The title captures the author’s objective, to examine the questions of Jesus in John in light of their logical, rhetorical, and linguistic virtues (p. 13). While the questions John’s Jesus poses keep the dialogue moving and advance the narrative, they do more. John selects Jesus’ questions to use them structurally so that questions put to characters also target readers. Estes identifies all of Jesus questions in John’s Gospel and makes the case that two themes emerge: (1) “Whom do you seek?” and (2) “Do you believe in me?” (pp. 164–65). He tabulates all the questions (pp. 164–65), but he devotes discussion to selected questions as models for understanding the rest.

Chapter 1, “Why Questions,” introduces Estes’ case that Western readers have a bias for reading questions as propositions. He offers illustrations to warrant his complaint that scholars privilege propositions over other “language forms such as questions, exclamations, commands, wishes, hopes and beliefs” (p. 6). His thesis builds upon and expands the concepts of language games and speech acts with correctives where needed. The chapter forecasts the contents of the remaining chapters.

In “Perspectives on Questions” (chapter 2), Estes inquires how questions work, particularly in John’s Gospel. He considers the impact of the confluence of the Hebraic, Greek, and Roman contexts with regard to questions. He concludes that the Fourth Gospel discloses “the Johannine Jesus to be an experienced orator (at least in a general sense of the term)” (p. 27). Then he shifts orientation to modern logic and linguistics with brief segments devoted to how questions relate to answers, to truth, and to speech. Estes critiques and corrects modern approaches to questions.

In chapter 3 (“How Questions Work”) Estes considers the functions of questions: “At its root, propositional . . . thinking is binary (true or false) whereas interrogative logic is by nature modal (multiple possibilities)” (p. 33). Defining questions is difficult, but Estes identifies fences that contain the discussion. He distinguishes questions and interrogatives (the former focuses on an illocutionary act’s object, the latter on the act’s force). Another difficult distinction is the difference between direct and indirect questions (p. 35).

According to Estes, with regard to discussions of questions, relevant current literature presents four ways to define what question entails: reductionist, syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic. He weighs them for helpfulness. He examines questions traditionally reduced to two types: informational and rhetorical. The latter is too expansive and too nondescript to be helpful.

Chapter 4, “John’s Use of Questions,” focuses attention upon the book’s core by asking, “Why did John include the questions of Jesus that he did, and why include those questions instead of other questions (or just more statements)? What do these questions mean and what are their purposes for being asked?” (p. 57). Questions enhance narrative dynamics and inform dialogues between Jesus and other characters more than propositions would. Questions assist characters to inform readers concerning one another by revealing much concerning “the character’s purpose, intent and perspective” (pp. 60–61). Questions confront readers: Jesus’ questions in John are raised in order to influence its readers (p. 62).

Estes tackles obstacles for understanding the questions of John’s Jesus. He fills the need for charting a route into the field of study. Questions within John’s Gospel are an overlooked narrative device. Because attempts to correct shortcomings concerning Jesus’ questions are larger than any introductory book can manage, Estes restricts his scope to “glimpses and examples of how we can better come to terms with the questions of Jesus in John” (p. 66).

In chapter 4 Estes identifies question types and pairs them with case studies within his next five chapters: chapter 5, “Open Questions,” chapter 6, “Reflective Questions,” chapter 7, “Decisive Questions,” chapter 8, “Responsive Questions,” and chapter 9, “Coercive Questions.” For each category Estes offers examples from ordinary conversations and identifies examples within John. He offers assistance for recognizing the various kinds of questions such as syntactical or semantic indicators as well as which words are likely to be attached to particular kinds of questions.

Estes shows how inattentiveness to Jesus’ questions leads exegetes to misdirect their readers as with Jesus’ open question that seeks an answer: “Why is it me you seek to kill?” (John 7:19c; pp. 73–76). Again, with regard to “Which of you convicts me of sin?” Estes challenges exegetes who explain the question as rhetorical. Instead, he argues that it “very much does seek an answer” (p. 78), for it is an information-seeking question. Noteworthy is Estes’ discussion of “Whom do you seek?” (John 18:4b, 7a), where the narrator informs readers that Jesus knew everything that would take place; yet he asks the question when the ragtag army, navigated by Judas, came upon him in the Garden to arrest him. Particularly engaging is Estes’ consideration of the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate. With his charge against Jesus, which he frames as a polar-question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (John 18:33), Pilate thinks he pins Jesus down to respond with a simple “Yes” or “No.” Jesus, however, recognizes the trap. As Estes observes, “Jesus ups the ante with an even more wily trap” (p. 122) by asking, “Do you say this on your own behalf, or did others say this to you about me?” (John 18:34). Jesus’ opposing-turn question is information-seeking at its core, for with an alternative-question he calls upon Pilate to decide whether he makes his charge on his own or on behalf of Jewish officials who are using him. Because Pilate is skilled in argumentation he does not answer Jesus but responds by asking a polar opposing-turn question that uses the verb εἰμί. Pilate prevails; Jesus concedes by acknowledging his kingship (18:37).

In a final chapter, “Answers and Questions” (chapter 10), Estes argues that questions in John’s Gospel are a literary motif much like “Word,” “living water,” or “light of the world” (p. 163). Jesus’ questions are not “simple grammatical devices” that have little or no importance. John’s Gospel is dialogically and rhetorically artful. Estes’ investigation beckons further serious research by scholars and thoughtful exegesis among commentators. “As modern scholars, we are trained to ask the questions and seek out the answers, we’re not trained in providing answers to questions we don’t ask” (p. 172).

Anyone who engages serious research in the Fourth Gospel will want to read The Questions of Jesus in John if not add it to one’s personal library. Estes’ work sheds light upon the numerous passages he addresses and incites fresh thoughts concerning how questions provide structure for John’s Gospel. All who are willing to read through The Questions of Jesus in John will surely appreciate the genius with which the Fourth Gospel was composed. Readers’ senses will doubtless be heightened to pause for reflection upon the import questions contribute to John’s narrative.

Reading Estes’ book reminds me of a devotional offered during a session of the Institute for Biblical Research in Boston a few years ago that focused upon a series of questions in dialogical exchanges Jesus had with his disciples and with Bartimaeus within Mark 8–10. As those insightful observations transformed my teaching of Mark’s Gospel, Estes’ provocative book has already begun to have a similar impact upon my current teaching of the Fourth Gospel.

For graduate and post-graduate students who ponder topics for prospective theses or dissertations, Estes offers both a model of original research in the Fourth Gospel and provocative insights worthy of further research. He points the way by saying, “As case studies, I hope these will prove to be samples for future exegetical work in not only John but also other biblical books as well. I believe further work in how questions inform the dialectical and rhetorical functions of ancient narrative would prove valuable to the study of all of the gospels” (p. 171).

Ardel B. Caneday

Ardel B. Caneday
University of Northwestern—Saint Paul
Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA

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