Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

The Production of the Johannine Community: A New Historicist Perspective

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

The Production of the Johannine Community: A New Historicist Perspective

Article excerpt

(ProQuest Information and Learning: Foreign text omitted.)...

Judging from a line of scholarship that has persisted in Johannine studies for nearly a century, it is safe to say that the Fourth Gospel invites dramatic production. It entices its readers into the theater. It asks them to assume roles as producers, directors, reviewers, even playwrights. Consider the following depiction of John 1:35-39 from Clayton Bowen's 1930 article in JBL:

The curtain rises on the same setting as in scene one. The Jerusalem committee has disappeared, but John stands there as before, looking off stage into the wings. We follow where his eyes are fixed and see, as he sees, the figure of Jesus (undescribed) walking slowly, majestically, on to the stage toward him. ... Now Jesus, striding in solemn silence by, has passed John and his two companions. The latter, at their master's words, turns and begins to follow Jesus as he walks toward the far end of the stage. A moment the three walk silently thus, leaving John a deserted and eloquently wistful figure where he stood.1

Or consider the Rev. E. Kenneth Lee's conclusion to his 1965 article in the Expository Times:

As in a great drama our attention is secured from the very first and we endure one throbbing hour of suspense until the crisis has come and gone. So in this Gospel, the hour of agony is long drawn out, the climax to which we are hastening postponed time and again, while the plot slowly ripens to catastrophe and the glory of God is revealed in suffering and sacrifice.2

The Gospel invites this kind of response because it has dramatic qualities.3 But it is not John's dramatic qualities per se in which I am interested, nor is it the history of composition of the Gospel that may have contributed to its dramatic nature. Instead, I wish to explore how reading the Gospel as a drama has been used as a tool toward particular ideological ends. I discuss two examples: (1) an early-twentieth-century reading of John as drama, and (2) later twentiethcentury -historical" dramatizations of the so-called Johannine community. I suggest that in both cases, these dramatic productions fall short of their theological/ideological intentions.

Nevertheless, I argue that we can learn something from the dramatization enterprise that may be helpful in ongoing interpretations of the Gospel. Drawing on the theoretical framework of new historicism and cultural materialism,4 I suggest that the idea of Gospel "production" as a metaphor for particular readings of the Gospel is of value, particularly as we struggle with the ethical dilemmas that a text like the Gospel of John presents to the reader. Thus, this article is both a study of the ideological implications of particular "dramatic productions" of the Gospel and a call to recognize readings of John (dramatic or otherwise) as cultural productions that manifest the text as a site of struggle and change.

I. The Johannine Drama and Apostolic Authority

I begin with an illustration of how transposing the Gospel narrative into a dramatic play functioned to make a theological point. In 1923, F. R. M. Hitchcock concluded his article "Is the Fourth Gospel a Drama?" with the following words:

The scenes are constructed and marshalled by one whose eye for the dramatic enabled him to sort his materials, to compose the settings of his scenes, and to arrange and use his dramatis personae with effect. His genius for characterisation and dramatisation... in the sense of representing the men he had known in all their strength and weakness, or delineating human character in all its complexity and depth, and of seizing just those episodes in the Master's life which were the real turning-points of the tragedy of the Cross, making this Gospel a tragedy, real, intense, progressive .... Judged by such internal evidence of mind and art, structure and character, the organic unity of the Gospel may be said to be established. …

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