Reviews of

The Rhetorical Impact of the Semeia in the Gospel of John

In John, Josaphat Tam, Mohr Siebeck, Willis Hedley SALIER on February 18, 2012 at 1:41 am

2012.02.05 | Willis Hedley Salier, The Rhetorical Impact of the Semeia in the Gospel of John. WUNT 2/186. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004. Pp. ix + 234. ISBN: 9783161484070.

Reviewed by Josaphat Tam, University of Edinburgh.

RBECS would like to thank Mohr Siebeck for kindly providing us with a review copy. You can find RBECS on facebook, here.

Published theses do not need to be long, and they need to be clear and to the point. Willis Salier’s thesis is one of them. This is the published version of the author’s doctoral thesis completed at the University of Cambridge in 2003, supervised by the late Graham Stanton and examined by Andrew Lincoln and James Carleton Paget. Consisting only of 187 pages of the main body with 56 pages of bibliography with indices, this monograph is well focused. It examines the language of σημεῖον (sign), a unique term in the Gospel of John and the way it operates within John’s rhetorical strategy. Its structure is simple: after a brief review of the previous studies and a presentation of his presuppositions, the author surveys the use of σημεῖον in its ancient contexts (chapter 2) and then he discusses the occurrences of σημεῖον and the sign narratives section by section throughout the Gospel (chapters 3-6).

Salier first probes into the use of σημεῖον in the Hebrew Scriptures in chapter 2. He suggests that its roles in the exodus account and in the sign actions performed by the prophets do carry theological connotations in fulfilling Yahweh’s purposes. Furthermore, Salier shows that the religious use of σημεῖον in Josephus and Philo differentiates itself as an attesting sign signalling God’s acts and messages in the Hebrew Scriptures rather than the Greco-Roman understanding of an omen. In the area of judicial rhetoric, σημεῖον also carries a denotation for a non-conclusive proof. Just like many other vocabulary adopted by the Fourth Evangelist, σημεῖον is an ordinary word and yet the author highlights its regular association to the rhetorical traditions used in the contemporaneous legal contexts.

From chapters 3 to 6, which cover John 1-4, 5-10, 11-12, and 13-21 correspondingly, Salier conducts exegesis to texts where σημεῖον occurs. He calls this a “text-to-reader” perspective, seeking to “identify and explain the devices used in the text to produce the desired effect in the reader” (p.6). Here more interactions with the major commentators, whether holding opposing views to his or not, could have been made. With these exegetical observations he made, Salier then discusses how they engage the “repertoire” of the first readers, a term he uses repeatedly in the thesis referring to “the prior understandings that already exist in the reader’s mind before he or she reads a narrative” (p.7 n.34 quoting J. Hawthorn). This he calls a “reader-to-text” perspective, “to try and understand the persuasive impact of the Johannine presentation by asking what might the early audience bring to the text from their cultural background or repertoire as they hear the Gospel” (p.6-7). Having looked at the individual occurrences of σημεῖον closely, Salier then discusses their role in a broader framework by examining the narratives designated by σημεῖον. Again, insights are made via the same two perspectives he adopted.

What remains interesting to the present reviewer is the usefulness of the latter perspective (cultural repertoire). With this perspective, he often brings in thought-provoking and interesting background materials that the first readers should have thought of but very possibly neglected by modern readers. This includes, to quote a few, the role of wine in the Cana pericope (p.64-70), the child mortality in the royal official pericope (p.73-74), and the crucifixion and the kingship motif therein (p.163-165).[1] For sure, awareness of these social, religious, and political contexts of the first readers will definitely enrich our understanding of the impact which the Gospel has made in the late first century.

Salier’s conclusion is twofold: First, “the σημεῖα function in the Gospel to identify Jesus as the divine Messiah, illustrate his mission as the true life-giver and provide a point of comparison and contrast with rivals” (p.173). Second, σημεῖα engage the readers to the forensic motif which invites the reader’s response to Jesus’ challenges made through his signs and associated claims. Σημεῖα also facilitate the reader’s identification with the characters and situations in the storyline. They offer readers from a diverse background an understanding of Jesus, whether those who are familiar with the background use in the Hebrew Scriptures, or those who are sensitive to the false claims of the popular pagan rival gods and the imperial cult.

On one hand, this monograph casts fresh insights from a literary approach, integrating the significance of σημεῖον to its associated concepts in the narratives. For instance, he sees a positive relationship between sign and faith in a holistic way unlike what the Johannine scholars of the previous generation concluded (e.g. R. Bultmann and R. Schnackenburg). This literary approach also contrasts glaringly to the previous studies which focused primarily on the question of sources. On the other hand, Salier’s cultural repertoire perspective offers modern readers a sensible awareness of issues that the first and ancient readers would have perceived while reading the text. With these two perspectives, Salier’s work fills the gap of the Johannine scholarship with his detailed analyses of this important word (and concept) in the Gospel.

There are a few minor defects noted: a few typos (p.35 “willl”, missing full stops at the end of p.35, p.109 n.103, p.156 n.38, and p.158 n.44, and p.231 “σημεῖιον”), missing words (p.77 n.2 last line), minor mistakes (p.79 n.5 “below” should be “previous”), and inconsistent indentations (p.163, 173 and 174). Needless to say, these are clearly minor problems which can be corrected in future reprints.

[1] Two recent notable works would enrich his discussion on the background and the kingship motif of Jesus’ crucifixion: Gunnar Samuelsson, Crucifixion in Antiquity An Inquiry into the Background and Significance of the New Testament Terminology of Crucifixion (WUNT 2/310; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011); Mavis M. Leung, The Kingship-Cross Interplay in the Fourth Gospel: Jesus’ Death as Corroboration of His Royal Messiahship (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2011).

Josaphat Tam
University of Edinburgh
josaphat.tam [ at ]


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