THE SYMBOLIC LANGUAGE OF JOHN’S GOSPEL HAS LONG ENGAGED THE imagination of its readers. The evocative references to light and darkness, bread, living water, and other images have elicited a steady stream of exegetical, theological, and artistic comment. Paradoxically, the same qualities that contribute to the wide appeal of John’s Gospel actually compound the difficulty of interpretation, since the leading symbols do not readily allow themselves to be defined; they convey multiple meanings simultaneously. In the following pages, therefore, I seek to distinguish and to explore the interaction between various aspects of meaning in Johannine symbols. At the same time I want to avoid reducing these multifaceted symbols to flat propositional statements or, conversely, suggesting that they are so indeterminate that they can mean anything the interpreter wishes.
Johannine symbolism cannot adequately be treated within the confines of one discipline; it demands consideration of the literary, the sociohistorical, and the theological aspects of the text. From a literary perspective I have built on the work of many predecessors, while giving renewed attention to the way we recognize symbols in the text, to the structure of the symbolism, and to its relationship to the literature of antiquity. When treating sociohistorical matters, I challenge the idea that Johannine Christianity was an introverted sect whose symbolic language would have been opaque to the uninitiated. I argue that Johannine symbolism would have been accessible to a spectrum of readers, helping to foster a sense of Christian identity that was distinct from the world while motivating the Christian community to a missionary engagement with the world. In terms of theological emphasis, I give special attention to the Johannine presentation of Jesus’ death and stress the centrality of the cross for understanding symbolic language throughout the Gospel.