Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community

By Craig R. Koester | Go to book overview
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4 Light and Darkness

IMAGES OF LIGHT AND DARKNESS PERVADE THE FOURTH GOSPEL, CREATING what is probably its most striking motif. The prologue depicts God’s Word as a source of life and light shining in the darkness (1:5). Later, Jesus concludes his nocturnal encounter with Nicodemus with unsettling remarks about those who love darkness rather than light (3:19–21). Then the motif fades away until Jesus suddenly declares that he is “the light of the world” (8:12) and demonstrates the truth of his claim by enlightening the eyes of a man born blind (9:4–7). The healing of the blind man and its aftermath intensifies hostility toward Jesus by many in Jerusalem, and shadows begin to fall over the period of daylight allotted for his ministry (11:9–10). With a final plea to believe in the light, Jesus vanishes from public view before plunging into the dark night of death (12:25–36, 46; 13:30). Afterward, the motif is reduced to a glimmer, with but passing references to the glow of lanterns, a charcoal fire, and the predawn darkness of Easter morning.1

These images are engaging for readers because the interplay between light and darkness is a fundamental feature of human existence. Day and night, brightness and shadow, establish the contours of the world we see with an evocative potency that has prompted people everywhere to ascribe religious significance to them; they are what Philip Wheelwright has called archetypal symbols.2 Because these images are so much a part of human experience, they can be difficult to define, calling forth a host of varied and even contradictory associations on both the cognitive and affective levels. Light comes gently with the promise of dawn, but glares down from the noonday sun; it gives the assurance of vision yet threatens

1. On light and darkness in the Johannine writings see Schwankl, “Metaphorik”; idem, Licht und Finsternis; van der Watt, Family, 235–39, 245–60; Ashton, Understanding, 208–14; Petersen, Gospel of John, 72–88; Stemberger, Symbolique, 25–49; Culpepper, Anatomy, 190–92.

2. Wheelwright, Metaphor and Reality, 111.


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