Devised Literary Structure of John
Devised Literary Structure of John

Devised Literary Structure of John

General overview of John

Richard Bauckham, Gospel of Glory, Major Themes in Johannine Theology, (P. 131-32)

“The Gospel of John is a text that constantly creates the impression that more is going on than immediately meets the eye. The author deploys the power of metaphor and symbol in a masterful way, so that the stories and teachings of Jesus are constantly and mutually illuminated by referring to other texts within the book.

Each story has been coordinated with other parts of the narrative so that stories acquire more layers of meaning than the surface one. John is a master of irony, so that characters constantly say more than they intend, and sometimes even the opposite of what they mean. Jesus is consistently misunderstood, foregrounding the question of what is the true meaning of his words.

The Gospel is also shot through with intertextual connections to the Hebrew Bible that expand the meaning of any given story when they are observed and then pondered. This book was written not only to make some sense to first-time readers, but it was also designed to be studied in order to yield its full cornucopia of meaning to only the most attentive of students. Its frequently riddling character… is meant to tease the intelligence and entice its readers into its world of multidimensional meaning.”

Misunderstanding, Irony and Symbolism

Germans scholars identified the motif of misunderstanding in the 20th century. Hans Windisch in 1923 regarded expressions of misunderstanding in the Fourth Gospel as a mark of Johannine style. H. Leroy interpreted this technique as the genre riddle, related to oracle and joke. The unreal riddles of John are given an abstract answer, which could not be understood without the accompanying clarification. (George Strecker, History of New Testament Literature (1997) p. 175) 

R. Alan Culpepper further elaborates on the misunderstanding, irony, and symbolism of John in his book Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, A Study in Literary Design (1987): 

The continuous implicit communication within the Fourth Gospel is a major source of both its power and its mystery. What seems clear and simple on the surface is never so simple for the prospective reader because of the opacity and complexity of the Gospel’s subsurface signals. Various textural features, principally the misunderstandings, irony, and symbolism, constantly lead the reader to view the story from a higher vantage point… It is the discovery of the subsurface signals which had previously escaped the reader’s notice that allows the gospel to be read again and again with pleasure and profit. (p. 151)

One of the distinctive features of the Gospel of John is the frequency with which its secondary characters misunderstand Jesus. These misunderstandings may be characterized in general terms by the following elements: (1) Jesus makes a statement which is ambiguous, metaphorical, or contains a double-entendre; (2) His dialogue partner responds either in terms of the literal meaning of Jesus’ statement or by a question or protest which shows that he or she has missed the higher meaning of Jesus words; (3) In most instances an explanation is then offered by Jesus or (less frequently) the narrator. The misunderstandings, therefore, provide an opportunity to explain the meaning of Jesus’ words and develop significant themes further. They have [greater] effect on the reader than if the meaning had merely been stated plainly from the beginning. (p. 152)

It is clear, that the same formative principle is at work in the Fourth gospel and in the Hermetic dialogues, however different the content may be. The evangelist, it seems, has molded his material in forms based upon current Hellenistic models of philosophical and religious teachings, instead of following the forms, of Jewish origin, represented in the synoptic gospels. The typical Johannian dialogue must be accepted as an original literary creation owing, so far as form is concerned, little or nothing to the primitive Christian tradition. (C. H. Dodd, Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel, p. 321) (p. 152)

Herbert Leroy has produced the most extensive study of misunderstandings and John, and it remains the best compendium of information on the subject. Through form-critical analysis, he defines the Johannine misunderstanding as concealed riddles. Francois Vouga criticizes Leroy’s limitation of the misunderstandings… maintaining properly, I think – that John does not use misunderstanding as a “technique” which is applied in the same manner in every instance. John’s method is supple and variable. This brief survey of the study of Johannine misunderstandings reveals that attempts to limit the category on the basis of strict criteria of content or form have excluded passages which ought to be considered. Whether the misunderstandings are described as a “motif,” “technique,” or “device” is probably of little consequence as long as their frequency, variability, and effects are recognized. (David W. Wead, The Literary Devices in John’s Gospel, pp. 69-70) (p. 153-154)

Eighteen passengers follow a common pattern, and several others contain variations of this pattern and may be considered as related passages. (The 18 passage widely accepted under the theme of misunderstanding are as follows: John 2:19-21, John 3:3-5, John 4:10-15, John 4:31-34, John 6:32-35, John 6:51-53, John 7:33-36, John 8:21-22, John 8:31-35, John 8:51-53, John 8:56-58, John 11:11-15, John 11:23-24, John 12:32-34, John 13:36-38, John 14:4-6, John 14:4-6, and John 16:16-19). (p. 161-162)

The irony of the Fourth gospel is always stable and usually covert. In covert irony meaning is hidden rather than explained, but when the meaning of stable ironies is reconstructed by the prospective reader they are as firm as a rock. John’s ironies are also corrective; One perspective contradicts, exposes, and invalidates the other the norms of the implied author are ostensibly drawn from Jesus and revealed by him. The prologue, as we have seen, serves the crucial function of elevating the reader to the implied author’s Apollonian vantage point before the spectacle begins. (p. 168)

Each of the passages in which irony can be detected has its own individuality and its own subtleties. Many of them involve words which have two or more meanings, one on the lips of the speaker and one or more understood only by the reader and the implied author. most of them can also be broadly classified as dramatic irony since they depend on the readers knowledge of the characters ignorance. More specific rubrics are therefore needed if one is to appreciate the variety and range of the evangelist techniques for constructing ironies. Because ironies are inevitably more subtle and complex than the rubrics under which they can be fitted, some of the passages fit under more than one. In spite of the difficulties of classification, appreciation for the evangelist’s craft may be increased by recognition of the range of ironies he employs. (p. 176)

The ironist maybe either Jesus or the evangelist, but since we have argued that the gospel is not concerned with the ipsissima verba (the very words) of the historical Jesus, we take it that the evangelist is the author of the gospels ironies regardless of which character presents them to the reader. (p. 178)

Our analysis of the misunderstandings, ironies and symbolism of the Fourth gospel highlights it’s “deformation of language.” Images, concepts, and symbols, and in its milieu are de-familiarized, given new meaning, and used idiosyncratically. In succession, various characters missed their meaning. The misunderstandings warned the reader not to mistake superficial for real meanings. By repeatedly exposing irony in the dialogue, the author calls the reader to share his elevated point of view on the story. Through the symbolism also the author tells the reader that things are more than they seem to be… The themes of the misunderstandings, ironies, and symbols are often interwoven, as can be seen in the major discourses in John 4 and 9 and at the arrest and trial of Jesus. The metaphors and symbols are misunderstood by the dialogue partner, creating a setting for irony and underlining the importance of perceiving the symbolic meaning of Jesus, his words, and his works. This interweaving of themes through misunderstanding, irony, and symbolism, is the signature of the evangelist’s insight and art.  (p. 199)

The gospel achieves its most subtle effects, through its implicit commentary. That is the devices and passages in which the author communicates with the reader by implication and indirection. Here the gospel says more than it ever makes explicit, the extensive use of misunderstanding in the narrative teaches the reader how to interpret what Jesus says and warns the reader always to listen for overtones and double meanings. Through its irony, the gospel lifts the reader to the vantage point of the narrator so that we may know what others in the story have not yet discovered and can feel the humor and bite of meanings they miss. A great deal of the agenda of Jesus’ disputes with the Jews is interpreted for the reader by the gospel’s irony. The folly of disbelief and misperception is thereby repeatedly exposed. The overtones of ironic words shade easily over the effects of John’s use of symbols. Core symbols, like light, water, and bread are used repeatedly and developed to the point where even allusions to them carry rich overtones. Through these symbols the gospel draws together the reader and the author, readers and Jesus, this world on the world above. Invitations to shared perceptions and shared judgments are accepted when readers sense meanings which are never stated. But the invitations, one sensed, cannot easily be declined. Readers dance with the author whether they want to or not, and in the process they adopt his perspective on the story. (p. 233)

Hans Frei, has insightfully chronicled but he called “the eclipse of biblical narrative,” the historical and cultural changes which mean that biblical narratives can no longer be read as realistic narratives, as they once were: “In its own right and by itself the biblical story began to fade as the inclusive world whose depiction allow the reader at the same time to locate himself in his era in the real world rendered by the depiction” (The eclipse of Biblical Narrative, p. 50)  One part of this process has been the evolution of a profound distinction between empirical and fictional narratives. History belongs to the former, imaginative literature to the latter. In order to retain their claim to truth and their role as revealed scripture, biblical narratives came increasingly to be read as “literally” true by the standards of a positivistic historiography. Either the world and indeed the details of the events in the gospel narratives correspond precisely to those of Jesus’ life, or else their claim to truth was felt to be denied or at least seriously compromised. Under such an alternative, the gospels have been read as “literally” true by most Christians. The choice has been either that the world of Jesus is accurately depicted by the narratives… or else Jesus’ world could not have been like that depicted in the narrative, in which case the gospel is not “true.” (p. 235-236)

The struggle over this dilemma is most intense at precisely the gospel’s central affirmation – the character of Jesus… there is no way to return to the period before the Enlightenment, of course, in no way to treat the gospel as though the issue were not there. The future role of the gospel in the life of the church will depend on the churches ability to relate both story and history to truth in such a way that neither has an exclusive claim to truth and one is not incompatible with the other… when art, history, fiction, and truth, are again reconciled we will again be able to read the gospel as the author’s original audience read it. (p. 236-237)

Theme of Misunderstanding in the Gospel of John Podcast

Dustin Smith, The Theme of Misunderstanding in the Gospel of John, Biblical Unitarian Podcast #204,

Now recognizing and understanding this theme is highly important for making sense of what the author or authors if that is what it turns out to be, of the Gospel of John are trying to convey to their ideal readers…

So, Warren Carter, in his book, ‘John: Storyteller Interpreter Evangelist…  Warren Carter defines the theme of misunderstanding in these three steps…

Step 1: Jesus makes an ambiguous statement in the narrative of the Gospel of John

Step 2: The conversation partner misunderstands what Jesus says, either by interpreting it literally or by asking an inappropriate question.

Step 3: Either Jesus or the narrating author explains the statement, although sometimes an explanation is missing it’s clearly implied…

Now, Warren Carter argues that this particular theme appears 18 times in the Gospel of John. In Warren Carter’s book, he actually draws attention to the earlier work by R. Allan Culpepper, and the name of that book is, ‘Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design.’ So of course, if we are looking at the theme of misunderstanding, which is interwoven into the narrative of the Gospel of John, at least 18 times, then certainly a book on the literary design of the Fourth Gospel would be very important…

Rudof Bultmann argued, in his commentary on the Gospel of John, that “the device of the misunderstanding occurs again and again throughout the Gospel.” And Bultmann actually suggests that this particular device, what I call the theme of misunderstanding, was already being used in Hellenistic revelation literature, which would suggest, if this is true, that this particular literary theme is not unique to the Gospel of John. It might have been very familiar to those who were more widely read in Hellenistic revelation literature…

The theme of misunderstanding has been widely accepted as non-controversial and clearly apparent by scholars of the Gospel of John for over 100 years.”


Narrator and Point of View

Excerpts from Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, A Study in Literary Design by R. Alan Culpepper

The implied author is the sum of the choices made by the real author and writing the narrative, but the implied author is neither the real author who wrote nor the narrator who tells. The implied author must be inferred from the narrative. The whole work conveys to the reader an impression of the implied author, not the real flesh and blood author but the literary artist or creative intellect at work in the narrative. (p. 16)

We have already noted that the narrator speaks from the temporal and ideological position of the Johannine community, which is defined by the gospel as a whole and by various references within it. All of the topics which are usually treated in discussions of the theology of the Gospel of John are, in fact, aspects of the implied author’s ideological point of view as it is conveyed through Jesus and the narrator. (p. 33)

Because of the similarity on Jesus’ and the narrator’s speech patterns, and because of the narrator’s influence on dialogue, it is impossible to tell when Jesus or John the Baptist stops speaking in Chapter 3 and when or if the narrator speaks. The identity of the speaker in John 3:13-21 (or John 3:16-21) and John 3:31-36 is a well-known problem. (p. 41)

The implication is, “it doesn’t matter who says or thinks this; it is appropriate to both character and narrator.” The ambiguity may strengthen the bond between the two, and make us trust still more the narrator’s authority. Perhaps we should speak of “neutralization” or “unification,” rather than ambiguity… Such statements imply that character and narrator are so close, in such sympathy, that it does not matter to whom we assign the statement. (p. 42)

In the gospel, it appears as if the narrator is adopting Jesus’ point of view ideologically and phraseologically, but this is just the impression the reader has of the situation. Actually, the author, who was probably informed by tradition handed down within the Johannine community, fashioned the characters, Jesus, as he wrote and interpreted Jesus through both Jesus’ dialogue and the narrator’s interpretive comments. It is therefore not a matter of the narrator’s speech being conformed to Jesus’, but of both reflecting the author’s speech patterns and expressing his ideological point of view. The consonance between Jesus and the narrator is a result of the author’s expression of his point of view through both his central character and the narrator. The character is not as objective or removed from the narrator as the unsuspecting reader may think. As a result, the narrator is an absolutely reliable guide to what Jesus meant to the author, a view, or better, a belief which the author sought to convey to the reader. (p 43-44)

The narrator… is not the Beloved Disciple but speaks as one who knows what is true, knows the mind of the Beloved Disciple, and knows that was the Beloved Disciple said is true. It is difficult to go further on the basis of this verse alone. The Beloved Disciple may be just another character through whom the author’s point of view is communicated, or he may be an idealized representation of the author (hence a dramatic approximation of the implied author) or an accurate characterization of the author himself. (p. 44)

Without needlessly multiplying entities, John 21:24-25 is open to interpretations involving one, two, or three persons. The one-person theory claims that the Beloved Disciple, the author, identified himself here after implying that the community should not expect him to live until the Parousia. This view founders upon four considerations: (1) John 21 seems to be an appendix added after the gospel reached its penultimate form; (2) it is more likely that John 21:24 implies that the Beloved Disciple has died; (3) the writer identifies himself with the “we” over against “this disciple”; and (4) it is unlikely that anyone would refer to himself as “the Beloved Disciple.” One version of the two-person theory would say that John 21:24-25 was written by the evangelist (the author of the rest of the gospel) and that the evangelist attributed his work to the Beloved Disciple, who may have been his mentor and the source of his material. Assuming this version of the two-person theory, the author at the end writes as a member of the group that has received the gospel written by the Beloved Disciple and attests to its truth.  If this is the case, the Gospel of John is a pseudonymous writing in which the author subverts suspicion that he has written it by attributing the gospel to the Beloved Disciple. (p.45)

The relationship between the narrator and the Beloved Disciple can be clarified further if one takes the view that the Beloved Disciple is an idealized characterization of a historical figure. Insofar as there is a consensus among Johannine scholars, it is that there was a real person, who may have been an eyewitness to events in Jesus’ ministry, and who was later the authoritative source for the tradition of the Johannine community. The witness of this Beloved Disciple was probably also understood to be an expression of the work of the Paraclete. Because of his significance for the community, the Beloved Disciple was idealized by the author and given a role at the Last Supper, the crucifixion, the discovery of the empty tomb, and the appearance in Galilee. There is no corroborative evidence for his role, however, and he does not bear witness until after the resurrection and therefore does not affect events in the story. In such a reading, the narrator finally identifies, or better, characterizes the implied author as the Beloved Disciple: “This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things” (John 21:24)… “This implied author is always distinct from the ‘real man’—whatever we may take him to be – who creates a superior version of himself, a ‘second self,’ as he creates his work.” (Booth, A Rhetoric of Fiction, p.151) Not only does the evangelist create a superior version of himself as he writes, but the editor identifies with this superior self (“who has written these things”) as the Beloved Disciple. (p. 47)

All of these narrative devices inclined the reader towards accepting the author’s understanding of Jesus. In fact, the gospel makes use of virtually all of the devices available for highlighting the credibility and authority of the narrative: appeal to tradition, a reliable narrator, inspiration (the Paraclete), eyewitness testimony, the authority of an esteemed figure (the Beloved Disciple), and the approval of a community [The literary structure of John] suggests further that one of the major purposes of the Fourth Gospel was to present a corrective view of Jesus. The disciples did not understand Jesus or his words during his ministry. Only later did they understand. [The Fourth Gospel communicates the implicate suggestion that] any account, whether written or oral, from an Apostle or prophet, which was not informed by the retrospective ideological point of view of this gospel could not present Jesus or his words in their true light. (p.48-49)

 The Structure of Fourth Gospel – Tim Mackie’s Overview 

The video below is a review of Tim Mackie’s overview of John, which breaks into the Matrix of the Fourth Gospel and decodes what is going. The review/overview illustrates the structure, literary devices, cryptic nature, and deep symbolism of the Gospel of John. The Gospel is a highly engineered literary masterpiece. Considering how engineered and crafted it is to incorporate as much parallelism and symbolism as possible and the extent it differs from the Synoptic Gospels, including its highly cryptic nature, it should be considered more symbolic than historic.

Structural evidence of the Fourth Gospel is a devised literary work

  • Chapter 1 introduces concepts that are woven into the narrative through the Gospel
  • There is deep parallelism incorporated into the Prologue and every scene with OT scripture
  • Theme of misunderstanding (18+ occurrences)
  • 7 Titles given to Jesus in the first chapter
  • Book of Signs: Group of 4 Jewish institutions + Group of 4 Jewish feasts
  • 7 + 7 I AM statements (Omitted in the Gospels)
  • 7 Signs – Deep symbolic symbolism
  • Signs have symbolic parallels to Hebrew scriptures
  • Signs point to the Passion/Resurrection
  • 7 Days (Beginning of Ministry) + 7 Days (passion – End of Ministry)
  • The raising of Lazarus is of central importance in the Gospel of John as a precursor to Jesus being crucified and being resurrected.
  • Various motifs repeated throughout the gospel