Book Review by Dr. Biju Chacko: ‘Dialogue in the Book of Signs: A Polyvalent Analysis of John 1:19-12:50’

Posted: February 1, 2018 in General

13527235_f520Dialogue in the Book of Signs: A Polyvalent Analysis of John 1:19-12:50 by Johnson Thomaskutty. Leiden/Boston: E. J. Brill, 2015. Pp. 540

Dialogue in the Book of Signs is a well-written and fascinating study of the dialogues in the Gospel according to John (1:19-12:50), a literary genre that needed much attention and an area largely remained thus far underexplored in Johannine studies. It is a strenuous task, a book with 558 pages, of which 484 pages deal with the main text, 18 pages for preface, foreword and other details in the beginning, 38 pages for bibliography and the rest for indices (index of authors and ancient sources). These details explicate the dedicated work of a researcher with focus and enthusiasm. The text is neatly printed without mistakes, which indicates many hours of cautious and exhaustive scrutinizing and hard work by the author.  The rich list of bibliography, appendices and the figures and diagrams used in the explanation deserves appreciation. The author also deserves appreciation for taking a challenging task, an under explored area, using a synchronic way of reading. The author limits his study to the Book of Signs (1:19-12:50) and defines his task as to identify the dialogue form people use in their conversation and the narrator’s dialogue with the reader and how the intermingling of these two layers play a vital role in the narrative structure of the Gospel (p. 19).

The methodology employed looks highly sophisticated. The author employs a polyvalent approach to drive his point home. The phenomena of dialogue are discussed at three levels: micro-level (looking for the semantic, syntactic and pragmatic aspects of the exchanges), meso-level (the relation between exchange units and their formation into episodes), and macro-level (taking the Book of Signs as a single unit and delineating the holistic features of the dialogue). In such a sophisticated analysis, the author relies on the genre critical theory developed by David Hellholm and David E. Aune (p. 21), especially the genre elements like “form, content and function” (p. 22). Narrative critical approach is also used as another tool, in which the Book of Signs is understood as a narrative, especially the narrative theory by Seymour Chatman, who explains “story and discourse” as two major elements within a narrative. The rhetorical techniques employed by the evangelist are also analyzed. The author also utilizes a “description and classification” method to unearth the holistic nature and the types of dialogues. Along with this an “analytic and synthetic method” is integrated. Thus, the author employs insights from genre, narrative, rhetorical, dramatic, and reader-response methods to analyze the dialogue texts of John. It describes the polyvalent nature of the method and its interdisciplinary orientation.

The study traces back the dialogues in the ancient world, from various religious traditions (Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Canaanite, and Greco-Roman), in which the conversation between the deities and the human beings were part of the affairs of that world. Such a context helps to explicate the dialogues between Jesus and the Father, between the ‘one from above’ (Jesus) and those ‘from below’ (Jews) and between the word that became flesh and the rest of the humanity. The ancient philosophical traditions are also called for support to understand the existent patterns of dialogue in the first century. At the same time, the study contends that Johannine dialogues must be treated on its own terms. Moreover, it has affinity with dialogues in the Old Testament, especially in its ‘inner negotiation and outer confrontation pattern’ (p. 36). A comparison between the Synoptic Gospels and the Fourth Gospel would reveal that though dialogue was employed by the Synoptic evangelists, John uses this literary genre in a more concentrated way. The author begins with an explanation of two questions at the outset: what is a dialogue in John and how a dialogue is different from a conversation.

11210434_10205374754682319_7096551444197954496_nThe author divides the whole Book of signs into 13 episodes. After giving the dialogue setting, he discusses the exchange units in a dialogue at three different levels: micro-, meso- and macro-. At micro level, the dynamics of exchange between individuals and interlocutors and their interrelation from its semantic, syntactic and pragmatic aspects are analyzed. Thus, the content, form and function of the exchange unit is studied, devices (for example, double meaning, misunderstanding and others) used in the dialogues are explicated and thus the dialogue trends are highlighted. At meso level, it analyses how the exchange units work in relation to one another and how they together contribute in the formation of an episode. By using a polyvalent analysis in the study of dialogues, the author takes all the pain to paint different layers and types (implicit, explicit, and others) of dialogue in the narratives and show their plot structure, characterization, thematic development, rhetoric, revelatory aspects, dialogue tenets (such as forensic enquiry, defense statements, messianic motifs, and the like), and other literary features. By doing this, the author elucidates different textures of the narrative before the readers. At this level, how the dialogue develops towards a common emphasis is mentioned.

At macro level, the study takes into account the features of dialogue in the Book of Signs as a whole. At this level, the details highlighted at micro- and meso-levels are organized. It deals with the relation between the exchanges and the episodes within the extended narrative framework. The author highlights the major dialogue trends such as question-and-answer, request-rebuke-response, challenge-and-riposte, and report-and-defense. This section also discusses the polyvalent connections as well as the rhetorical thrust of the dialogue.   In all these three levels the ‘character dialogues’ and the ‘narrator-and-reader dialogue’ are explained side by side.

The author has made a deliberate attempt to fill the gap in the study of the dialogues, and thus bring to forefront the underexplored dimensions of this literary genre in the Fourth Gospel. It explores the literary and rhetorical character of the Gospel and brings forward the varied textures of the narrative. The study relates the dialogues as an important genre and its polyvalent performative trends in the Gospel. The author successfully brings out the aesthetic elements of the text before the readers.The story of Jesus is presented in the Sitz-im-Leben of John through dialogues, and thus the narrator invites the readers of the gospel to be engaged with the narrator. However, while applying the literary techniques and seeing the story of Jesus in the ‘Johannine life situation,’ the author remains silent on the negotiations of the narrator through his protagonist (Jesus) and the varied characters in the Gospel. This Gospel is a powerful negotiation against Jewish cultural nationalists and also against the presence of the Empire and its operations in the lived experience of the Johannine community (Warren Carter, 2008: 3-15). This study has sufficiently argued and explicated the rhetorical techniques used by the evangelist/narrator. At the same time, it was also a rhetoric of distance (Carter) and thus resistant elements and its negotiations with the power centers needed attention, which may be beyond the scope of this study.  This book is a useful study, challenging all the New Testament scholars and students to engage in interdisciplinary approaches, especially, for Johannine students, this research work is a must read book. Surely, it prompts further research in the field of Johannine studies.This book has strongly argued for a dialogue-centered interpretation than a narrative-centered interpretation, thus contends for a new epistemic center from which the hermeneutical wings of Johannine eagle can spread into higher realms.

Dr. Biju Chacko

Assistant Professor of New Testament

New Theological College

Dehradun, India


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