Reviews of

A Grand Gathering of Johannine Characters

In Character studes, D. François TOLMIE, Gospel of John, Josaphat Tam, Mohr Siebeck, Narratology, New Testament, Ruben ZIMMERMANN, Steven A. HUNT on March 1, 2014 at 12:23 pm


2014.3.4 | Steven A. Hunt, D. François Tolmie, and Ruben Zimmermann eds., Character Studies in the Fourth Gospel. WUNT 314. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013. Pp. xvii + 724. ISBN: 9783161527845. 

Review article by Josaphat Tam, University of Edinburgh.

Many thanks to Mohr Siebeck for providing a review copy.

This is a “grand gathering” of Johannine characters (and scholars).  The present work is by far the most complete edited volume on Johannine characters studies.  The aim is clearly stated, “to offer a comprehensive narrative-critical study of nearly every character Jesus… encounters in the narrative world of the Fourth Gospel” (xi).

Roughly seventy characters are included in the present volume.  Almost every character you can think of in John can be found there. Being so exhaustive, there is surprisingly no treatment of “Jesus,” the very key character in John.  Other important ones like “the Father” and “the Holy Spirit/Paraclete,” though being “unseen characters,”[1] are also missing.  Yet entries for “angels” and “the devil” can be found. The editors claim that these three are “deliberately avoided” (xiii).  Somewhat disappointingly no further explanation is offered.  Entries of the characters are in the order of their first appearance in the gospel.  (Would it be more user-friendly were they in alphabetical order?)  A total of forty-two Johannine scholars are involved in this project; most will be familiar to readers of the field, just to name some: Catrin H. Williams, Martinus C. de Boer, Paul N. Anderson, R. Alan Culpepper, Harold W. Attridge, Gilbert Van Belle, J. Ramsey Michaels, Marianne Meye Thompson, Gail R. O’Day, Adele Reinhartz, James L. Resseguie, Helen K. Bond, and Jean Zumstein etc.

The bulk of entries is preceded by an introduction on characterisation and a comprehensive table showing the characters’ involvement in John.  The introduction chapter provides a very comprehensive review of scholarship on characterisation in in the field of (1) narratology, (2) biblical studies, (3) synoptic gospels and Acts, and (4) John.  Obviously, the characters’ importance in John varies and so do their treatments in this volume.  From the perspective of length, the entry of “the Jews” ranks the highest: 39 pages (the second is “Thomas”: 26 pages); the lowest are “the slaves of the royal official” and “Barabbas”: each has 3 pages only.  For the ease of discussion, I select ten entries for more detailed discussion here, following the order of the volume.

1. In the entry “the World” (subtitled “Promise and Unfulfilled Hope”), Christopher Skinner highlights the world’s “metonymical function as a symbol for humanity” (p.61).  Criticising Lars Kierspel’s and Cornelis Bennema’s narrow focus on the world’s connection with “the Jews” and noticing the positive side the world could bring, Skinner prepares his readers for the “exclusively negative presentation that follows” (p.62).  He states that, in John, the world refers to all humanity as well as individual characters.  He grouped the traits of the world in relation to God/Jesus/Paraclete under five categories: The world “hates” Jesus, “follows” Jesus in ignorance, “rejects” the Spirit, “rejoices” at Jesus’ departure, and “does not know” God.  Skinner asserts that the world in the Prologue (1:1-18), being set as the agenda for the entire gospel, represents “the comprehension, internal orientation, and outward behaviour of all who oppose the light” (p.64). This sets his tone for his treatment of the world in the rest of the gospel under the aforementioned five categories.  After all, the world functions “surreptitiously” as the “primary antagonist” (p.70).  According to Skinner, there is a clear dichotomy between those opposing vs. those celebrating God’s plans and purposes.  He shows that the world lies with the former.

But is such characterisation fully justified?  While Skinner’s exegesis from the selected texts is reasonable to show that his view stands, he seems to have undervalued the significance of texts like 1:12, 29; 3:16-17; 8:12; 9:5; 16:8; 17:21, 23, where the world clearly remains the object of God’s love and the evangelistic target of Jesus and the Paraclete (subsequently the Christian community).  There is a tension between the unbelieving/rejecting attitude of the world towards Jesus and the hopeful conversion of the world for which Jesus/the author maintains.  If the unbelieving characters/traits are represented by the world, the believing characters are also represented by the world.  Being also members of the world, the Samaritans, the Samaritan woman, the blind beggars, and the disciples etc. encounter Jesus and are called to be children of God.  They are from the world; upon understanding God’s love and through their believing understanding, they no longer belong to it while they are still in it (cf. 17:11, 14-16).  The Pharisees’ fear in 12:9, “the world has run off after him,” though hyperbole it may be, ironically contains an element of truth.  Far from expressing the world’s following in ignorance as Skinner claims (p.67), these words of the Pharisees can be a partial summary to Jesus’ ministry.  Through these words, the author shows to the readers that, in contrast to those religious elite, truly some members of the world can be receptive to Jesus’ message.  A clear example is that even the crowd are divided in their attitude towards Jesus (7:31, 40-43; see “the crowd” entry).  Time and again, the world is the receiver of God’s promises, though unfulfilled to some, yet definitely not to the others.  In light of these observations, it seems the more complex traits of the world should be further explored.

2. For the entry “the Pharisees” (subtitled “A House Divided”), Uta Poplutz works on a clearer group of opponents of Jesus.  Poplutz first notes the vague characterisation of the group.  The Pharisees belong to the Jews and yet appear as a distinct group in the narrative.  The narration sometimes is imprecise in distinguishing between the two.  They also have alternating coalitions with other opponents of Jesus like the chief priests and the scribes.  Next, Poplutz notes three aspects on the group characters: (1) its “designation” as distinguished from other entities; (2) its “identity” in relation to its types and social categorisation; (3) its “assignment” of individual characters to the group.  Poplutz then proceeds with her narratival analysis.  She sees the Pharisees as a powerful religious authority.  They have “enough personal or institutional power to command supporting staff to seek information and execute orders” (p.120).  Yet it is the chief priests instead of the Pharisees that dominate the passion narrative.  Regarding its group character, as a consistent group, the Pharisees are no homogeneous entity just like the Jews (p.124).  Nicodemus is an example.  In his conclusion, Poplutz suggests that the vagueness of designation and its imprecise alternation with “the Jews” reflects the situation of the Johannine community.

To this reviewer, Poplutz meticulously discloses the complicated nature of the character in the narrative.  Careful observations are made.  The analysis is systematic.  She has her point in connecting John’s portrayal of the Pharisees with the situation of the Johannine Community in the late first century, even though apparently the evidence for such a community as reflected in the gospel is still debated.[2]

3. For the entry “Nicodemus” (subtitled “The Travail of New Birth”), Alan Culpepper works on one of the most interesting characters in the gospel.  Perceptively reviewed the history of interpretation that sees Nicodemus as a historical person, a representative figure/communal symbolic figure, and a literary character within the narrative, Culpepper discusses the ambiguity as highlighted through his traits observable in 3:1-12; 7:50-52; and 19:39-42.  According to him, John deliberately leaves Nicodemus’ status unresolved throughout the gospel.  Nicodemus appears to be “moving toward Jesus with each appearance;” yet he never ceases to be in the darkness; he is also a “secret believer” like Joseph of Arimathea (p.259).

To interact with Culpepper’s discussions, is Nicodemus’ characterisation consistently ambiguous all the way through?  How are we to understand John’s ambiguity?  For instance, in Nicodemus’ first appearance (3:1-12), Culpepper seems to have insufficiently noted the significance of Jesus’ rebuke in 3:12.  The second person plural in οὐ πιστεύετε in Jesus’ reply definitely includes Nicodemus.  Jesus explicitly says that Nicodemus does not believe and he questions how Nicodemus can believe if he reveals heavenly things.  The ambiguity is certainly there because Nicodemus’ response to Jesus is interestingly missing in the narrative; but that Nicodemus is not yet a believer in 3:1-12 is never ambiguous, which appears not connecting to 2:23-25.[3]  In his last appearance in 19:38-42, to the readers, Nicodemus, together with the secret believer Joseph of Arimathea, come to light by openly requesting to bury Jesus, and thus admitting a connection to him.  Together with their exceptional provision of a staggering 30kg of spice (19:39), their courage and astounding respect speak for their believing attitude.[4]  This can hardly be seen as “Nicodemus’ penance” (being comparable to Judas Culpepper seems to suggest; p.259).  To this reviewer, the ambiguity lies less on Nicodemus’ faith stance than on what he will subsequently do as a result of this courageous act.  What would become of these two characters?  Being left untold again in this last appearance, it is interestingly left for the readers’ imagination. (Is it another way, to quote Culpepper, to force the readers to “bring closure beyond the text” [p.252]?)  Having stepped out for faith finally, will they suffer what the blind beggar did?  Or will they be able to live out what Jesus teaches in his farewell discourse?  Will they persevere or return to loving the praise/glory of men more than the praise/glory of God (12:43)?

4. For the entry “The Crowd,” Cornelis Bennema aptly gives a subtitle “A Faceless, Divided Mass.”   Treating “the crowd” as a single and corporate character, Bennema selects John 6 (the Galilean crowd of common people), John 7 (the Jerusalem crowd of common people), and John 12 (the Jerusalem crowd of particular religious partisans) for analysis.  He sees from the point of view of “character complexity” that the crowd displays multiple traits (“divisibility, sympathetic, patriotic, enthusiastic, sensationalist, has some determination and theological discernment, has potential for belief and discipleship” and yet “displays misunderstanding, complaining, aggression, rejection, and unbelief” [pp.352-353]).  It shows no “character development” but reveals some “inner life” as disclosed by Jesus.  Bennema thus evaluates the crowd negatively though Jesus is able to elicit “positive response” from some of them (though inadequate).  It has its role in John in that their “questioning and theological reasoning about Jesus’ identity provides Jesus an opportunity to elaborate” (p.355).  Nevertheless, they either believe Jesus superficially, remain as secret believers, or eventually reject Jesus.

In light of my review to “the world” above, “the crowd,” to a certain sense, is reminiscent to “the world.”  It appears to be a manifestation of some aspects of the world in the storyline of John, highlighting mainly the negative traits of the world and its divisibility.  As “faceless” people in the narrative, one wonders what do they correspond to in the implied readers’ world?  Perhaps lying marginally beyond the scope of characterisation, this remains an interesting question that Bennema can address more.

5. For the entry “The Greeks” (subtitled “Jesus’ Hour and the Weight of the World”), Sherri Brown points out that, being somewhat ignored by the Johannine scholarship, the arrival of the Greeks in John 12 actually “confirms both the universal intent and result of Jesus’ ministry” (p.398).  Paying close attention to the context, Brown analyses the text carefully.  She admits that the Greeks serve mainly as “actants whose purpose is to drive the plot forward” (p.401).  Yet their request “to see Jesus” (12:23) characterises them as Gentile faith-seekers, intending to believe in Jesus (p.402).  Being background characters, they carry a “narrative force” in John as they come in the arrival of Jesus’ “hour.”  It signals that Jesus’ suffering anticipates the breaking of ethnic boundaries which encompasses the world and fulfils his own promise in John 10.

This reviewer finds that her identification of the Greeks as ones who “hope to believe” may appear a bit overstated, does Brown confuse “seeing Jesus” with “believing in Jesus”?  Nevertheless, Brown’s overall argument is valid.  She tellingly shows the significance of the timing of the placement of the Greeks’ arrival in John’s plot.  These seemingly irrelevant characters do have their role upon close scrutiny.

6. For the entry “Beloved Disciple” (subtitled “The Ideal Point of View”), James Resseguie first affirms scholars’ findings in recognising the Beloved Disciple (hereafter BD) as the ideal disciple and the ideal witness/author (p.537).  He then adds to the discussion by bringing out that the BD also represents the “ideal point of view of the narrative.”  Resseguie proves this from scenes of the last Supper (13:23-26), the courtyard (18:15-18), the cross (19:26-27, 35), the tomb (20:2-10), the Galilean sea (21:7, 20-23), and an inclusio observed in the gospel’s beginning and ending (1:35-40; 21:20-24).  Passage after passage, Resseguie shows that the BD “sees the glory in the flesh” while other characters do not and that the BD “wants the reader also to adopt this point of view” (p.549).

Having discussed these texts, Resseguie concludes that the development of the BD as a character is “static.”   This conclusion based on his narratival analysis carries conviction.  Compared with Thomas and Peter who finally make supreme confessions toward the end of the gospel (20:28; 21:15-17), the BD, though being an “ideal” disciple, is never the only privileged disciple of Jesus in the narrative.  Indeed, he represents John’s ideal point of view; he truly has a unique status among the disciples, but so do Peter and Thomas (and even Mary Magdalene), especially in light of their encounter with Jesus and their faith developments.  On the one hand, as Resseguie rightly suggests, the “static” state of the BD enables him to guide the readers along the plot.  On the other hand, such a strategy to “sacrifice” his character development when compared to others is also remarkable.  Perceptive though the BD is, he is always hiding, in order to let others glow.

7. In “Barabbas: A Foil for Jesus, the Jewish Leadership, and Pilate,” David Mathewson discusses the function of the little-known character from the perspective of modern linguistics and participant reference.  Noting the amount of “encoding” characters received, the grammatical role they play, the type of processes they involve (material/mental/relational processes), he concludes that Barabbas (18:40) is a passive participant, not advancing the plot, and plays only a minor role (p.599).  He is a foil to the other three participants: (1) he is a “Gegenfigur” (the “opposite” character) to Jesus; (2) he is used to highlight the irony of the absurdity of Jewish leadership; (3) he shows Pilate’s “failure to dispense justice commensurate with his office” (pp.599-600).

While some of Mathewson’s conclusions can be seen even without the use of his theory, he nevertheless brings out the depth of the rhetorical role of this often ignored character.  Having disagreed with Culpepper that Barabbas was unknown (p.600), it is interesting to note that this Barabbas receives mention in all the synoptic gospels.  To bring this observation further, how would Mathewson’s analysis in John here be compared to that of the synoptic account, using the same methodology?

8. Further through the passion narrative, there are “The Soldiers who Crucify” (subtitled “Fulfilling Scripture).  Michael Labahn examines the soldiers’ occurrences in 19:2, 23-24, 32, 34.  The soldiers are characterised as hostile and non-believing; yet they unwittingly give witness to Jesus.  Ironically, they do not serve Pilate but rather serve God and Jesus by fulfilling the Scripture as seen in: (1) the distribution of Jesus’ garments; (2) serving Jesus for a vinegar drink (p.605); (3) breaking the legs of the crucified but exclude Jesus; and (4) piercing Jesus’ side with a spear.  Labahn’s analysis is brief; yet the role of these minor characters is concisely shown.

9. In the crucifixion scene, we also have “The Women by the Cross” (subtitled “Creating Contrasts”).  Francois Tolmie sees the contrasts which the women create in the narrative by treating them as a group character.  Noticing the ways 19:25 can be punctuated, Tolmie finds himself justified to see four women by the cross (the mother of Jesus, her sister, Mary of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene), not three and not two as some scholars claim.  Tolmie also notes the apparent contradiction with the synoptic gospels that women were said to have been standing afar instead and scholars’ harmonisation attempts to solve this problem.  The different understandings of the role which the women played in John are also noted.  Arguing against Bultmann’s notion that they are transitory, Tolmie sees that those women function to “give pause to the tendency to pass over their presence at the cross too quickly” (p.621).  The clues that give rise to this include: (1) their contrast of portrayal with the soldiers and (2) the use of εἱστήκεισαν suggest that they had been standing there all the time.  These show that (1) they are there supporting Jesus; (2) they are the “faithful few” that follow Jesus to the end; and (3) they are the believing females contrasting the males who reject Jesus.  Through these women, it suggests an “outward effect” that Jesus has gathered “the new spiritual family” by the cross (cf. 12:32).  Finally, Tolmie returns to the ambiguity of the number of women presented.  He claims that this has a “retarding effect on the reading process” which lets the reader focus more intensely on the content, i.e., what the women are doing there?

While Tolmie’s observations on the faithful characterisation of the women are generally valid and convincing, the retarding effect deserves more elaboration.  It is doubtful to this reviewer that an ambiguity will necessarily lead readers to any meditation of the content.  To put it another way, the reader’s query of what the woman are doing in the scene can occur upon any close reading.  This is not necessarily generated by the dubious number of women in the text.

10. Jan van der Watt works on “The Angels: Marking the Divine Presence.”  Noticing the differences from the synoptic account concerning the angels in the resurrection scene (20:12-13), van der Watt explains their portrayal in John in three aspects.  First, their white garments denote a visit from the heavenly world.  Second, sitting in the tomb (one where the head and one where the feet of Jesus had been) emphasises the heavenly presence, thus implying that God’s act happened there.  (Here Van der Watt considers the possibility of 20:12 as implicitly commenting on 1:51).  Third, the angels’ question to Mary, “Woman, why do you cry?” challenges her perception, highlighting her misunderstanding and emphasising Jesus’ revelation (pp.659-661).

Van der Watt rightly notes that the role of the angels, who are well known revelatory beings according to biblical traditions, is deliberately minimised by John “in favour of the overwhelming presence” of the true revealer Jesus (p.662).  Seeing it in this way, the surprise to ancient readers is obvious. Their role as witnesses to Jesus is noteworthy.

This review would become too long if all the entries in this volume were reviewed here. But I hope that the review above represents a snapshot of some of the contents as well as the interactions with some of the discussions.  As my survey shows, many notable characters in John are connected in one way or another. The value of the present volume would be further enhanced if some of these characters could be compared and contrasted (e.g., the world, the Jews, the crowd, the Pharisees, and Nicodemus etc).  As can be seen from the ten entries I have surveyed in detail here, the present volume looks thought-provoking and helpful.  The book is carefully edited.  A list of contributors, indices of references to the scriptures and ancient texts, as well as indices to modern authors and subjects prove useful. Despite some quibbles here and there, I find the present volume a good and important companion to readers interested in the narrative criticism of the gospel (despite the price).

Josaphat C. Tam
School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh
Josaphat.Tam [ at ]

[1] Unseen characters are only referred to by other characters and are not directly involved in the narrative.  With the possible exception of 12:28, “the Father” can still be treated as an unseen character.

[2] See the latest David A. Lamb, Text, Context and the Johannine Community: A Sociolinguistic Analysis of the Johannine Writings (LNTS; London: T&T Clark, 2014).

[3] See further my alternative proposal concerning the role of 2:23-25, Josaphat C. Tam, “When Papyri and Codices Speak: Revisiting John 2:23-25,” Bib (under review).

[4] See further my discussion in Josaphat C. Tam, “Grasping the Divine: Apprehension of Jesus in the Gospel of John” (PhD Thesis, Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, 2014), 221.  Cf. Uta Poplutz’s comment on p.126 of the volume.


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