Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community

By Craig R. Koester | Go to book overview
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7 Symbol and Community

JOHN’S GOSPEL WAS WRITTEN IN AND FOR A COMMUNITY OF FAITH. THE text is expressive, voicing the convictions of the Christians who added their affidavit to its final page: “We know” that this testimony is true (21:24; cf. 1:14, 16). Yet the Gospel is also persuasive, making its case “in order that you might believe” (19:35; 20:31). As it bears a message from the “we” to the “you,” the text serves as a means of communication, shaping the way people see themselves in relation to God, to one another, and to the world in which they live. People almost certainly were drawn into the first Johannine communities through testimony delivered orally and invitations to “come and see” (1:39, 46; 4:29); but faith is not self-sustaining, and Johannine Christians had an ongoing need to hear and reaffirm the community’s testimony. The text was an integral part of that process.

Much of the Gospel’s witness is presented in symbolic form, and in Johannine terms an effective symbol must enable people to “remain” in Jesus and “continue” in his word together with other disciples (menein, 6:56; 8:31; 15:4). Interpreting the symbolism, therefore, involves asking about what it does as well as what it means, about its role in community life as well as its theological significance. The Gospel bears the marks of the social setting in which it was composed; like the hands of the risen Jesus it displays transcendent realities through scars incurred in earthly conflict. The text conveys a “symbolic universe” that provides ways to conceive of life and death, community and contention; and by affecting the way readers perceive their situation, it influences the way they respond to it.1

1. On the way “symbolic universes” integrate provinces of meaning, affect actions, and are challenged and reaffirmed see Berger and Luckmann, Social Construction of Reality, 92–128. On the relationship of symbols to communities see esp. Geertz, “Religion as Cultural System”; V. Turner, Forest of Symbols, 19–58. For a sketch of studies on symbolism and social anthropology see Dillistone, Power of Symbols, 99–116.


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