Literary Criticism

Course: Introduction to the New Testament: Gospel and Acts

Lecture: Literary Criticism

I. Opening Remarks

We have surveyed the various historical criticisms and now turn to supplement our discussion of chapter five of the textbook on literary criticism. Already at the end of chapter four, Dr Blomberg anticipated the shift from the more literary oriented criticism by introducing the topic of cannon criticism which functions as a bridge between the two. For supplementary information on this recent discipline along with the more significant question about the formation of the cannon, see the hermeneutics textbook, Introduction of Biblical Interpretation by William Kline, the 2004 edition. In as much as hermeneutics is a prerequisite for this class, at least as conceived of for credit by Denver Seminary. We will not repeat that information here. Chapter five, as we turn to literary criticism, is also anticipated by our discussion at the end of chapter four, which could have actually gone into chapter five. But, in many ways, the macro level equivalent as that of an entire document is what form criticism is for the micro level constituent element of the document, except it is used strictly on the interpreted level and not postulating the prehistory or tradition history building up to the final form of that document. That topic is also treated in an expansive detail in our hermeneutics textbook and so as the British would say, ‘we will give it a miss here also.’

Chapter five, additionally, introduces us to both structural and post-structural forms of literary criticisms. The former has substantially faded since its heyday, spanning the late 70’s to the early 90’s. The more radical form of post-structuralism, particularly as represented in deconstruction are already beginning to be a noticeable passé in secular university context, perhaps symbolized by the death of its founder. The more conservative forms, such as they are of post-structuralism are going under the broad term of reader response criticism are still with us. There is no question that the major subdivision of literary criticism that has been around the longest and already proved its staying power is narrative criticism which is the approach that treats the Bible as literature recognizing that in addition to its historical and theological purposes. Many, if not the Biblical writers, also had literary or aesthetic purposes in mind. That it is possible to take in the New Testament the books known as the Gospels and Acts and ask and answer questions of them, very much like students of the literature of any culture, adopt questions about plots, characterization, about drama, narrative time, about the scenes and their inter-relationship and questions of subordinate themes as well as more major themes or lessons intended or un-intended from the story line, etc.

We have tried to give a number of programmatic examples in Jesus and the Gospels and once again, we refer to a chapter in our hermeneutics textbook. So we feel justified in not elaborating in great detail here but with the accompanying PowerPoint slides, we would like to add some illustrations which perhaps borrow as well from some of the sociological analysis that we talked about in an earlier lecture. So there is some potential for applying narrative criticism to the Gospel of John which has received lessor attention in this lecture series. This focus of interest will be on John three and four; particular in the first fifteen verses of John three. There, we have the famous conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. The man who is described as a leading Pharisee, the teacher of Israel, an upstanding figure in charge of religious oversight of the Jewish nation. In the mid 1980’s, it was Peter Loterral, principal of London School of Theology, formerly London Bible College, who in a small article in the Expository Times, pointed out that one feature of the literary presentation of conversation in the ancient Mediterranean world. He denoted that a person who was to be perceived as the authoritative figure or person in control, hence the overlap we described in sociological analysis was first who spoke the most and secondly, who was allowed to dictate the course of the conversation. Now, in applying these principles to John’s presentation of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, John observed that Nicodemus appears as the first named character. Even given just the little bit of information about him, we would expect him to be the person to take the initiative in this conversation and to remain in charge as Nicodemus was the person who the greatest honor was due. But that isn’t what we see; the narrative takes a surprising twist, indeed more than once.

II. Jesus and Nicodemus

So we see in the first interchange between Nicodemus and Jesus; it begins with the opening gambit in verse two, ‘rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing, if God were not with him.’ At first, this appears to the most positive thing one could expect out of authoritative Jewish teachers who were puzzled by this up-start, self-styled rabbi with remarkable content to his teaching and miracle working ability. But Jesus, at least what John chooses what to include or what not to include in his narrative, surprises us and John’s original readership by not accepting Nicodemus’ gambit. By not staying on the topic but abruptly as if he almost had not heard what Nicodemus had said, changed the topic and replied, ‘I tell you the truth, no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again or born from above.

The second interchange in verses 4-8 now shows Nicodemus replying with a briefer number of words or amount of speech than in his opening gambit. This comes in verse 4 in the form of a question, ‘how can a man be born when he is old. Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born or perhaps implies, ‘can he?’ Not only does it insist that Nicodemus speak more briefly, but more startling that instead of trying to turn attention back to his opening gambit, he accepts the change of topic which Jesus has introduced, suggesting that Nicodemus is acknowledging Jesus’ leadership role and therefore the status of one who is at least to be viewed at a superior. Jesus now replies with a significantly longer remark, expanding his answer from his first comments. He answered in verse 5, ‘I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of God and the Spirit, flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit give birth to Spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying that you should be born again. The wind blows wherever it wills or pleases. You hear its sound but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’

Nicodemus’ finial roll in this conversation is even briefer by asking, ‘How can this be?’ Then Jesus’ answer is even longer. A question in the NIV and other modern translations indicate that isn’t sure whether Jesus’ original words ended with what John said in John 3:15 since verses 16 through 21 is in the third person. So the quotation marks could go either way, at the end of verse 15 or 21. But Jesus rebukes Nicodemus sharply for being the preeminent teacher of Israel and yet not understanding these things. In essence, Jesus basically says to Nicodemus that if you cannot get the earthly basics of spirituality how are you going to understand the more esoterically heavenly things? In verses 16 to 21, there is further elaboration either by Jesus or the Apostle John. So as the conversation has unfolded, it becomes clear that John is using a well-known narrative technique of his day to begin with Nicodemus and Jesus in the expected role according to the sociological acceptance of their world, showing Jesus quickly turning the tables in the way the conversation is presented and therefore accruing to himself a greater honor and status while Nicodemus decreases in both and the chapter progresses.

III. Nicodemus and Samaritan Woman

The second half of the remarks in this brief lecture now compare John 3 and the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus with John 4 with Jesus and the Samaritan woman by the well, apparently Jacob’s well of old near the town of Sychar. It is interesting of itself that these are the only two extended conversations in John’s Gospel between Jesus and a solitary individual as opposed to dialogues with groups of people. And that they come in relatively close proximity to one another is all the more striking. When one looks at the number of contrasts between Jesus’ two conversation partners in these two consecutive chapters, it becomes almost impossible to imagine that their position and pairing are coincidental. Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman differ from one another in just about every conceivable fashion according to those criteria that humans have used and often still use to separate that creation of the human race Jesus fashioned. Again, whatever more fully orbed biographies could have been written about one or both of these characters. John’s choice of these contrasting elements is what highlights the sharp differences between the two and as narrative critics looking for literary artistry and themes disclosed through plot, scenes and characterization. We are convinced that with many commentators, we have come across a significant illustration of John’s artistry and intention.

Let’s now look at these contrasts: Nicodemus, the description of his role as the teacher of Israel, a member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, and a Pharisee. He held a position of great power in Israel and was almost certainly, well to do and perhaps of a very wealthy family. Anyone who had these descriptors in ancient Israel would be expected to be upper middle class. Obviously he was Jewish and thus one who articulates true religion because he is the teacher of Israel. He is deemed to be wise as we are given his name. The ancient world, much more so than today, names were significant. Insight into characterization came through names. To speak or act in someone’s name represented their authority or power. And for a narrator to include the name of an otherwise minor character was another way to represent them as having honor or status. Now, consider the Samaritan woman, opposite in every one of these respects. She was a woman, a Samaritan woman, coming to the well in the heat of the day at high noon, apart from the time when others of the town’s people came to the well. She was almost certainly in some position of dishonor or had some kind of stigma and therefore with very little power in the standings within her society, unless she was poor. We have already been told that she was a Samaritan, not from the Jewish perspective, not only Nicodemus and the Pharisees but Jesus and the apostles. She represented a hybrid religion which had deviated from Orthodox Judaism in a number of key respects and therefore was false. She almost certainly would not have had any access to education as a poor Samaritan woman and quite the opposite from Nicodemus. We are never even told her name. There are enough contrasts to make it clear that these two figures are deliberately being portrayed as opposite in almost every respect.

Let’s turn now from their characterization to the actual event of the stories that John narrates with respect to the conversations that Jesus had with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman. We’ve already see how Nicodemus didn’t understand. There are positive signs in the Gospel of John that perhaps Nicodemus begins to admire Jesus and his teachings more, and maybe even come to understand him more. Nevertheless, we see that he simply doesn’t get it. He comes by night and that of itself would hardly mean anything, perhaps it simply represents his only free time. Yet, in a Gospel, that appeals to light and darkness as symbolic of spiritual knowledge or the lack of it one wonders if John implies something more by this. When we see the Samaritan woman coming at midday, we can’t help but wonder whether this is another symbolic contrast.

Nicodemus calls Jesus, teacher, and uses the title, rabbi. This would have been one of honor, coming from a person who probably went through the highest levels of formal training imaginable. Nicodemus is no doubt, thinking that he is giving Jesus a great honor by ascribing him this same title despite Jesus’ complete lack of rabbinic training. And yet it’s interesting to study the use of the terms: rali, rabbi, and dedoxulos, the Greek for teacher throughout John’s Gospel. They are used in every other instance to address people without the fullness of understanding represented by such titles as Christ or Son of God, or other more exalted titles. Intriguing, also, is Nicodemus’ comment that he knows Jesus is a teacher because no one could perform these miraculous signs if God was not with him. Hence, he is a rabbi who has come from God. If we go back to the final paragraph of chapter two, we’ll see the context for this remark. While he was in Jerusalem during the Passover feast, many people saw the miraculous signs which Jesus was doing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them for he knew all people. He didn’t need human testimony about humanity for he knew what was in a person.

There is something about belief in this context as we will see. It’s a theme that occurs frequently in John’s Gospel that belief based nearly on miraculous signs may or may not turn out to be genuine or valid or long lasting. (Note: we have no idea how much time has transpired between the end of chapter two and the end of chapter three) When we read that Nicodemus bases his high view of Jesus on miraculous signs, this is not the unmixed praise that in another context where it might have been. Again, we see a contrast with the Samaritan woman who pushes Jesus in conversation, rather than demonstrating any fear; until she sees and understands for herself. Nicodemus doesn’t yet believe, he comes by night, he calls Jesus merely a teacher and his faith is solely dependent on signs. We’ve already mentioned and illustrated how he fades from view in conversation; how it leads Jesus to become increasingly cryptic with Nicodemus and finally somewhat brusque with him. Yet, every feature contrasted in John 4 as the apostle and Gospel writer presents the Samaritan woman, is as one who comes to faith. Indeed she even brings the town’s people to see Jesus to hear for themselves. She comes at midday, at noon. Her title for Jesus is, ‘I perceive you are a prophet,’ which isn’t as exalted as Son or Son of God or Christ and Messiah. But we must realize that the prophet for the Samaritans, the prophet of Deuteronomy 18:15-18, the one like Moses who would be raised up, was regularly synonymous for the Messiah.

It would appear that John is portraying this as a more exalted acknowledgment of Jesus thought still short of the full understanding that will come later in the conversation than the title Nicodemus began with. We already mentioned that the Samaritan woman sees and understand for herself. If one would chart an outline of chapter 4:4-42, one would see that the number of words and the length of speeches of Jesus with the Samaritan woman average out to be approximately the same, especially as Jesus becomes increasingly clear in his self-revelation throughout the passage instead of increasingly cryptic. And Jesus speaks to her what has been viewed as in much more tender tones than he does with Nicodemus. The upshot then of all these observations even if we may have un-wittedly made more in them than God intended, is what may be called a great reversal where the most likely person in Jesus’ world to understand that which is truth from God just doesn’t get it. And then one who may be the least likely from many people’s point of view to get it. It’s not surprising that as John’s Gospel continues and further, the entire Christian Gospel unfolds throughout the New Testament, that, there are many cases of those powerful individuals who think they understand all there is to know about God are those who God, in Christ, ultimately judges and those who recognize their spiritual poverty, not to mention their physical or social or sociological lack of position are those who come to a full flowering faith.