Alan Culpepper’s Foreword to “Dialogue in the Book of Signs”

Posted: July 13, 2015 in General

72003 (1)Herewith I publish the “Foreword” of Prof. R. Alan Culpepper to my book entitled “Dialogue in the Book of Signs: A Polyvalent Analysis of John 1:19-12:50” [Biblical Interpretation Series, Vol. 136; Leiden/Boston, E.J. Brill, 2015]. The book will be released by Brill in August 2015.

[[Typically the narrative sections of the Gospel of John have received more attention than the dialogue and discourse sections.  This division of the Gospel into narrative and discourse can be traced at least to Rudolf Bultmann’s magisterial commentary in which he attributed the narrative sections to the semeia-source and a pre-Johannine passion narrative, and the discourse material to the Offenbarungsreden (revelatory discourse source).[1]  His theory of a semeia-source has been more widely accepted than his proposal that the Johannine discourses derived from a pre-Johannine source that was not connected with the signs until the fourth evangelist composed the Gospel using these sources.

For refinements of the theory of a source for the Johannine signs material, one can now consult the monographs by Robert T. Fortna and the commentary by Urban C. von Wahlde.[2] C.H. Dodd found a much more integral connection between the Johannine signs and discourses, observing that the first two signs (2:1-12 and 4:43-54), like the synoptic miracle stories, are not followed by discourses.[3]  Then, the signs in chapters 5, 6, and 9 are followed by discourses that develop themes related to the foregoing sign.  With the raising of Lazarus and the death of Jesus, the discourses precede the sign and prepare the reader to understand their significance.

With the emergence of narrative criticism and rhetorical analysis, the functions of the Johannine discourses began to attract the attention of Johannine scholars.  Not surprisingly, the longest discourse section, the Farewell Discourse in John 13-17 was the first to be studied as an integral unit within the Gospel. Fernando Segovia mined the resources of ancient rhetoric for interpreting the functions of the farewell discourse within the narrative in which it is embedded,[4] and D. F. Tolmie applied narrative criticism to this non-narrative section of the Fourth Gospel.[5]

Johnson Thomaskutty has now written a comprehensive, exegetical analysis of the dialogues in the first half of the Gospel, the Book of Signs, that is synchronic (focused on the text of the gospel narrative and the functions of the dialogues within the narrative) rather diachronic. Taking what he describes as a “multivalent” approach, Thomaskutty describes the setting, form, content, and function of each of the dialogues in John 1:19-12:50.  He is also concerned with the functions of these dialogues at both the intradiegetic level (dialogue among the characters within the story) and the metadiegetic level (dialogue between the author/narrator and the reader of the story).[6] At the micro-level, he discusses the dynamics of the individual utterances of the interlocutors and their role, alongside the narrative, within the exchange units. At the meso-level, he analyzes how the exchange units work in relation to one another and how they form the episodes. Finally, at the macro-level, he describes the holistic features of dialogue in the Book of Signs, which is considered as a single literary unit.

Thomaskutty’s descriptions of the various forms of the dialogues in the Book of Signs offer a critical vantage point from which their functions in advancing the plot the narrative can readily be seen.  Among the formal structures he finds are:  question-response-command format, request-rebuke-response format, double meaning-misunderstanding-clarification format, challenge and riposte dialogues, pedagogical dialogues, and report and defense dialogues.

The breadth of this volume’s analyses can be seen, for example, in the four levels of dialogue that Thomaskutty observes in his discussion of John 6:1-15:

first, dialogues between Jesus and his disciples (one explicit, vv. 5b-10a; and one implicit, v. 12), which reveal the identity of Jesus; second, a community dialogue (v. 14), which makes the reader aware of the impact of Jesus’ words and deeds outside the circle; third, the inter-textual dialogue, which confirms the fulfillment aspects; and fourth, the narrator and reader dialogue, which marks an ever-continuing impact of Jesus’ story in the life of the reader. (p.215)

This layered approach yields a richly detailed analysis of the dialogues in the Book of Signs. The macro-level reflections in the last chapter take note of the role of the dialogues as they interact with other literary elements, such as monologues, signs, the “I am” sayings, metaphors, and dramatic elements in the Gospel narrative.

Thomaskutty’s extensive research, eclectic methodology, expanded focus on the functions of dialogue in multiple narrative relationships, and his sheer industry and attention to detail will establish this volume as an important resource for the ongoing study of the role of dialogue within the Fourth Gospel.

End Notes:

[1] Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, The Johannine Monograph Series (1971 rpt.; Eugene, Ore.:  Wipf & Stock, 2014).

[2] Robert T. Fortna, The Gospel of Signs (SNTSMS 11; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970; idem, The Fourth Gospel and Its Predecessor: From Narrative Source to Present Gospel (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1988). Urban C. von Wahlde, The Gospel and Letters of John (3 vols.; Eerdmans Critical Commentary; Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2010).

[3] C. H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1953), 363.

[4] Fernando F. Segovia, The Farewell of the Word (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1991).

[5] D. F. Tolmie, Jesus’ Farewell to the Disciples:  John 13:1-17:26 in Narratological Perspective (BINS 12; Leiden:  E. J. Brill, 1995).

[6] These terms were introduced by Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method (trans. Jane E. Lewin; Ithaca, NY:  Cornell University Press, 1980), 228-34.]]

R. Alan Culpepper

McAfee School of Theology

Mercer University

For more details about the book, go here.

For the preview of the book, go here.

  1. Sam Carr says:

    Thank you for furthering the cause of understanding John!

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