The Gospel of John in Cultural and Rhetorical Perspective

Jerome H. Neyrey Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids November 10, 2009
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Throughout his academic career Neyrey has focused on the cultural context of the New Testament, and this volume brings together eighteen of his previously published articles on the gospel of John. This is not a commentary; instead the articles explore the rhetorical and cultural situation of the Gospel of John and its impact on understanding the book.

The first of three parts includes three articles on the Gospel’s genre, role and status, and spatial issues. The second part comprises the vast majority of the volume (over 350 pages) and discusses specific passages in John. Here is where the cultural and rhetorical information is seen as impacting the interpretive process. The third part includes only two articles that focus on the relationship between Jesus and God.

In the article “ ‘He Must Increase, I Must Decrease’ (John 3:30)” (pp. 123–42), Neyrey introduces the concept of “limited good,” which maintains that resources are limited and already distributed. This is supported by numerous illustrations from ancient texts including the Old and New Testaments (pp. 128–36). This makes sense when one thinks of land or other material resources. However, it was also applied to concepts such as honor and popularity. A person’s gain in one area was considered a loss for someone else. The losing party might “envy” the loss and sense the need to do something to rebalance (or regain) the resource. Thus John 3:22–30 opens with John the Baptist’s disciples informing John that many were leaving him for Jesus. Implied in their statement is that Jesus was gaining popularity at the expense of John. Normally such a statement would result in a response of envy, and one would expect John to seek to reclaim what he had lost. However, John broke this cycle by acknowledging that Jesus’ increase did not harm him. Rather, John was happy about the increase of Jesus’ popularity. In no way was John’s honor affected (thereby in some way negating “limited good”). The interpretive insight gleaned from knowing this background makes John’s statement more than a praise of Jesus or an acknowledgment of God’s will (“Jesus must . . . John must”). Instead it is a countercultural statement that went against the grain of society’s expectations.

The article “ ‘Equal to God’ (John 5:18): Jesus and God’s Two Powers in the Fourth Gospel” (pp. 172–90) describes a trial-like scene that took place between Jesus and His opponents after He performed a healing on the Sabbath. His opponents not only accused Him of healing on the Sabbath but also of making Himself “equal to God.” Thus the charge is in two parts. First, Jesus is claiming to be “equal to God” and second, Jesus is “making Himself.” Jesus approved the first but rejected the second. Neyrey demonstrates that beginning in 5:19 and continuing through the raising of Lazarus, Jesus used two powers of God: creative and end times. These powers are described in Philo and by the rabbis as God’s powers. Since Jesus used these, He would be understood as equal to God.

The article “ ‘My Lord and My God’: The Heavenly Character of Jesus in John’s Gospel” (pp. 441–53) is interesting but may cause some readers difficulty. Earlier in the book Neyrey clearly argued that Jesus is equal to God. In this article Neyrey brings together Christological discussions from previous articles and furthers his discussion of the identity of Jesus. For Neyrey, Jesus in the Gospel of John is the deity who appeared in the Old Testament (pp. 442–44), is equal to God (pp. 444–49), has God’s creative and eschatological powers (pp. 446–49), and is eternal and imperishable (pp. 449–53). However, some of Neyrey’s statements may seem contradictory. For example he writes that “this Gospel does not claim that Jesus is Yahweh or that he replaces God. Jesus himself would seem to be endorsing monotheism, echoing the Shema (Deut 6:4-5), when he addresses Israel’s deity, ‘This is eternal life, that they may know thee, the only true God . . .’ (17:3)” (p. 453). This (and other statements) could be interpreted as saying that Jesus is somehow less than God the Father. However, in the very next sentence Neyrey writes, “Yet the Johannine community is also calling Jesus ‘god’ ” (p. 453). Despite the lower-case “god,” Neyrey is describing Jesus as divine. However, He is not identical to Yahweh (God). Ultimately Neyrey defends John’s Christology as “high-Christology” (which he describes earlier as “equal to God,” p. 331).

This apparent contradiction can be solved when one considers three things. First, Neyrey is describing the Gospel in its original setting for its original audience. He is not describing the Gospel from a later Trinitarian perspective. John may be used by theologians to understand the Trinity; however, one cannot force this theological development back into specific passages in John. The diversity reflected here expresses the complexity of Christ Himself. Second, Neyrey notes that this high Christological confession would be controversial and thus some of John’s language about Jesus is apologetic (p. 453). Third, as already noted, a clear distinction is being made between God the Father and Jesus.

In “ ‘Despising the Shame of the Cross’: Honor and Shame in the Johannine Passion Narrative,” Neyrey includes introductory information on honor and shame (pp. 414–18; see also pp. 212–14). This information is helpful; however, given the importance of honor and shame, it would have been preferable for this information to have been included near the beginning of the book.

All approaches require cautious examination and validation, and Neyrey’s approach is no different. One may not agree with all of Neyrey’s conclusions, but they will cause the reader to think about the text of John. The focus on cultural information illuminates the text in many helpful ways. This emphasis does not necessarily drastically alter one’s understanding of the text, but it does add color to John’s Gospel and it will prune away incorrect notions and add important additional information. 

—Joseph D. Fantin

July 1, 2012
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2012 vol. 169 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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