Encountering Jesus

Encountering Jesus: Character Studies in the Gospel of John

Cornelis Bennema
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: 2
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  • Book Info
    Encountering Jesus
    Book Description:

    Applying a comprehensive theory of character to the Gospel of John, Cornelis Bennema provides a fresh analysis of both the characters and their responses to Jesus. While the majority of scholars view most Johannine characters as “flat,” Bennema demonstrates that many are complex, developing, and “round.” John’s broad array of characters and their responses to Jesus correspond to people and their choices in real life in any culture and time. This book highlights how John’s Gospel seeks to challenge its readers, past and present, about where they stand in relation to Jesus.

    eISBN: 978-1-4514-8749-7
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface to the Second Edition
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-42)

    People are interested in people and like to hear their stories. The appeal of a good novel, movie, or biography is that it draws us into the story so that we identify with one or more of the characters. Some authors write simply to entertain readers, while others write in order to persuade their readers of a particular viewpoint. The author of John’s Gospel falls in the latter category.¹ John explicitly states his purpose in 20:30-31:

    Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so...

  5. 2 Jesus: The Life-Giving Revealer
    (pp. 43-60)

    Jesus is the protagonist in the Johannine narrative and dominates every account in the Gospel. The vast amount of information makes it difficult to reconstruct his character. In the previous chapter, I outlined John’s story of Jesus, but here I will trace the character of Jesus through the major sections of the narrative. I will begin by delineating Jesus’ identity, origins, mission, education, and authority.¹

    The key questions arising from the Johannine narrative about Jesus are Who is he?, Where is he from?, What is his mission?, What is his education?, and By whose authority does he operate? The text...

  6. 3 John: Witness Par Excellence
    (pp. 61-74)

    The first human character mentioned in John’s Gospel is John (1:6).¹ Although John is never called “Baptist” or “Baptizer,” the references to his baptizing activities in 1:25-33 and 3:23 assure us that he is the same person we find in Mark’s Gospel. Virtually all scholars agree on the characterization of John in John’s Gospel: he is a witness. The author has stripped John of almost all details regarding his identity and actions, reducing him to a flat character whose single role is to testify to Jesus.² This characterization, however, is an oversimplification. Although John is presented primarily as a witness,...

  7. 4 The World: Enveloped in Darkness but Loved by God
    (pp. 75-86)

    The termworld(κóσμος) occurs seventy-eight times in John’s Gospel, making it, together with “the Jews,” one of the characters with most appearances. We shall see that “the Jews” are partially synonymous with the world in that the former represent the latter on a micro scale. It is therefore surprising that, while the world finds mention throughout the Gospel (except for John 2; 5; 19–20), “the Jews” are absent from the farewell discourses in John 13–17 (except for an isolated reference in 13:33). In fact, over half the occurrences of the termworld(51 percent) are concentrated in...

  8. 5 “The Jews”: Jesus’ Opponents Par Excellence
    (pp. 87-100)

    The term οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι (“the Jews” or “the Judeans”) occurs sixty-six times in John’s Gospel making this group an important character in John’s story.¹ Rudolf Bultmann saw “the Jews” as theological symbols, representing the unbelieving world in general in its hostility toward Jesus.² There is a consensus within Johannine scholarship on Bultmann’s views on the role of “the Jews.”³ Consequently, some scholars regard “the Jews” in John’s Gospel as a flat, composite character, representing the evil attitudes of the world.⁴ However, I will argue that more can be said about Bultmann’s definition of “the Jews” and that they are not...

  9. 6 Andrew and Philip: Finders of People
    (pp. 101-110)

    Andrew and Philip have a stronger presence in John’s Gospel (five and twelve occurrences, respectively) than in Mark’s Gospel, but, more importantly, they have a distinct role to play and always appear together (1:35-51; 6:1-9; 12:20-26), except for 14:8-9, where only Philip is present.¹ Information about the identity and social status of Andrew and Philip is sparse. Both are Galileans, originating from Bethsaida (1:44), a town near the Sea of Galilee meaning “house of fishing.” John does not mention their profession, but if the two unnamed disciples in 21:2 refer to Andrew and Philip, they may have been fishermen—in...

  10. 7 Simon Peter: A Shepherd in the Making
    (pp. 111-126)

    Peter is probably the disciple we know and like best—perhaps because many sympathize with him.¹ Although John’s Gospel mentions Simon Peter more often than all the other disciples, it provides few details about his identity. First, he is from the town of Bethsaida (1:44), at the Sea of Galilee. Bethsaida means “house of fishing” or “fisherman’s house.” John 21:2-3 suggests that Peter was probably a fisherman before he joined Jesus.² Second, Peter had a brother Andrew, and their father was called “John” (1:40-42). Third, his original name was “Simon” but Jesus renames him “Peter” (1:42). A change of name...

  11. 8 Nathanael: The Genuine Israelite
    (pp. 127-134)

    Nathanael appears only in John’s Gospel, and very little is known about him. We learn from 21:2 that his hometown is Cana in Galilee—probably in the hill country about fifteen kilometers west of the Sea of Galilee. Hence, Nathanael was not a fisherman like Andrew and Peter.

    “Nathanael” is a Hebrew name, meaning “gift of God” or “God has given.” This has led a few scholars to argue that Nathanael is symbolic of the disciples that have beengivenby the Father to Jesus rather than a real disciple (6:37; 17:2, 6).¹ However, this requires the reader to know...

  12. 9 The Mother of Jesus: A Catalyst in His Ministry
    (pp. 135-146)

    In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ mother is an anonymous character, married to Joseph (6:42), and she has, besides Jesus, other sons (2:12; 7:3).¹ She has an unnamed sister and probably knows Mary the wife of Clopas, Mary Magdalene, and the Beloved Disciple (19:25). Jesus’ family lives in Nazareth (1:45; 18:5; 19:19), but Jesus’ mother seems to accompany her son at various points during his ministry—in Cana (2:1-5), Capernaum (2:12), and Jerusalem (19:25-27). This coheres with the Markan account, which shows that various Galilean women accompanied and provided for Jesus during his ministry, who were also present during his...

  13. 10 Nicodemus: In the Twilight Zone
    (pp. 147-160)

    One of the most intriguing characters in John’s Gospel is Nicodemus, not least because scholars have evaluated him in different and contrasting ways: from being someone who became Jesus’ disciple,¹ to “the true Israelite,”² “a well-intentioned representative of the ruling classes,”³ a fearful “secret believer,”⁴ atertium quid,⁵ a pathetic character lacking courage and conviction,⁶ one who has come “to a dead end,”⁷ or even the typical unbeliever.⁸ Everything about Nicodemus is intriguing and mystifying—his identity, his dialogue with Jesus in John 3, the argument with his colleagues in John 7, and his appearance at Jesus’ burial in John...

  14. 11 The Samaritan Woman: An Unexpected Bride
    (pp. 161-174)

    After the intriguing account of Nicodemus, we come to the unexpected encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Since both stories are about belief-responses and have common themes, including water, Spirit, eternal life, and testimony, it becomes evident that John wants his readers to compare the woman with Nicodemus.¹ Like Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman is an individual character but also representative of a larger group. Despite the similarities, Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman stand in great contrast. While Nicodemus is a well-known, well-to-do, well-educated Jewish religious leader, the woman is anonymous and, as a Samaritan, belongs to a community despised...

  15. 12 The Royal Official: His Word Is Enough for Me
    (pp. 175-184)

    The royal official appears only in 4:43-54, closing the larger section “from Cana to Cana” of John 2–4. R. Alan Culpepper observes that the royal official is “one of the overlooked characters of the gospel”—but then devotes merely a short paragraph to him.¹ I will provide a more detailed examination, showing that the royal official undergoes a three-stage development in his faith.

    The royal official resides in Capernaum, a city on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee (4:46). We may assume he is married, since the narrator tells that he has a son (4:46-47), who has...

  16. 13 The Invalid at the Pool: A Lame Response
    (pp. 185-200)

    Leaving the royal official and the section “from Cana to Cana” (John 2–4) behind, we enter another major section, John 5–12, where Jesus faces increasing opposition from the religious leaders in Judea and Jerusalem. The first character in John 5 is an invalid man, whose encounters with Jesus and “the Jews” in 5:1-16 precipitate the first main confrontation between Jesus and “the Jews.” The majority of scholars adopt a negative reading of the story, suggesting that the invalid was dull, passive, and did not respond to Jesus with belief but betrayed him to “the Jews.”¹ Some scholars, however,...

  17. 14 The Crowd: A Faceless, Divided Mass
    (pp. 201-212)

    The crowd (ὄχλος) embodies, of course, the largest number of people, yet it is not an obvious character and has received virtually no attention from Johannine scholars.¹ The crowd has a dominant presence in John 6; 7; and 12 (90 percent of all occurrences).² A quick glance, however, reveals that these crowds are not the same but differ in geographical location and composition, so we must first examine the identity and behavior of each crowd.

    John 6 contains the account of Jesus miraculously feeding the crowd and the subsequent discourse in which he reveals himself as the true bread from...

  18. 15 The Twelve: Slow but Sticky
    (pp. 213-228)

    The termthe Twelveoccurs four times in John’s Gospel (6:67, 70, 71; 20:24), referring to Jesus’ inner circle of disciples, but nowhere does John provide a list of their names. We will examine the Twelve as a collective character, while other chapters in this book study individual disciples from among the Twelve.¹ We must keep in mind that John uses the termdisciplefor others who follow Jesus apart from the Twelve (4:1; 6:60-66; 7:3; 8:31; 9:28; 19:38)—though many of them are unable to sustain their discipleship. Sometimes John’s description of a person’s speech and actions indicates that...

  19. 16 Judas Iscariot: The Black Sheep of the Family
    (pp. 229-244)

    In the Gospel of John the name of Judas appears in three forms: (i) Judas (13:29; 18:2-5); (ii) Judas (the) Iscariot (12:4); (iii) Judas, son of Simon Iscariot (6:71; 13:2, 26). Judas, the Greek variant of the Hebrew Judah, one of the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel, was a popular name in first-century Palestine.¹ There is more uncertainty about the termIscariot. Most scholars hold that it refers to Judas’s hometown Kerioth, presumably in southern Judea, but some have suggested Moab.² A few have suggested that “Iscariot” indicates that Judas was one of the Sicarii or “dagger-men”—urban...

  20. 17 The Man Born Blind: Once I Was Blind but Now I See
    (pp. 245-258)

    John 9 contains the well-known story of the blind man who came to see.¹ John provides few details about the man’s identity. He is unnamed, blind from birth, and a beggar in the vicinity of the temple in Jerusalem (8:59–9:1; 9:8). He is possibly a young adult since the phrase “he is of age” (9:21) indicates that he has passed his thirteen birthday and hence had the age of legal responsibility.² Jewish regulations very likely restricted his entry into the temple and participation in regular worship. The Mishnah, for example, mentions, “All are liable foran appearance offering [before...

  21. 18 Martha: The Ideal Johannine Confessor
    (pp. 259-266)

    Martha lives with her sister Mary and brother Lazarus in Bethany, a village about three kilometers southeast of Jerusalem (11:1-2, 18).¹ All three are perhaps unmarried, and the text indicates that Jesus is a close friend of the family (11:3, 5, 11). The sisters send a message to Jesus that Lazarus is ill (11:3), and when Martha learns that Jesus is coming, she leaves the village to meet him on his way (11:20, 30). Martha’s addressing Jesus as “Teacher” (11:28) and “Lord” (11:21) reflects the teacher–disciple relationship mentioned in 13:13, showing that she probably considers herself a disciple of...

  22. 19 Mary of Bethany: At Jesus’ Feet
    (pp. 267-274)

    John 11:1–12:8 presents a story about a small family—Lazarus, Mary, and Martha—in the village of Bethany, near Jerusalem.¹ Mary may be unmarried and reasonably wealthy, considering the cost of the perfume she uses to anoint Jesus’ feet (12:3, 5). That Jesus loves her (11:5) probably indicates that she is his disciple (as are Martha and Lazarus [see chapter 18 above and chapter 20 below]). Her interactions with Jesus are recorded in two incidents—one before and one after Lazarus’s resurrection.

    Regarding their understanding of Jesus, both Mary and Martha start from similar positions: underlying their identically worded...

  23. 20 Lazarus: The Dead Shall Hear His Voice
    (pp. 275-286)

    At first sight, Lazarus does not appear to agree with our definition of an “active” character as one who interacts with Jesus and produces a response to him (see chapter 1 above). He never utters a word and appears entirely passive; his illness, death, burial, and resurrection merely happen to him.¹ I will show, however, that this is not an entirely accurate picture.

    Lazarus lived in Bethany, a village about three kilometers southeast of Jerusalem (11:1, 18).² His family may have been well-to-do, considering the very expensive perfume his sister Mary could afford (12:3, 5). Besides, Lazarus was probably buried...

  24. 21 Thomas: Let Me See and Touch
    (pp. 287-298)

    Thomas is popularly known by his nickname “doubting Thomas,” which comes from his demand for tangible evidence in order to believe that Jesus is alive (20:25). Indeed, theOxford English Dictionarydefines a “doubting Thomas” as “a person who refuses to believe something without proof.” We must examine whether this is a true portrait. Regarding Thomas’s identity, John provides only two clues. First, Thomas was one of the Twelve (20:24). Second, the name “Thomas” corresponds to the Aramaic word for “twin” (“Didymus” is its Greek equivalent) (11:16; 20:24; 21:2), but there is no evidence that Thomas had a twin. This...

  25. 22 The Beloved Disciple: The Unique Eyewitness
    (pp. 299-316)

    In the second half of the Gospel, we meet a new character—“the disciple whom Jesus loved” (13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20), better known as the Beloved Disciple. The Beloved Disciple is an enigmatic and intriguing character, and his network of relationships is complex. His presence in John 13 (presumably throughout John 13–17) and in John 21, and the constant companionship of Peter, would suggest that he was one of the Twelve or was closely associated with them. The Beloved Disciple is also familiar with the high priest and facilitates Peter’s entry into the courtyard (18:15-16).¹ Regarding Jesus’ mother,...

  26. 23 Pilate: Securing a Hollow Victory
    (pp. 317-328)

    Pontius Pilate was Rome’s representative in Judea from 26 to 36/37 c.e. Although Pilate is given no title in John’s Gospel, other sources designate him as “procurator” (a financial officer of a province; Josephus,Jewish War2.169; Philo,Legatio ad Gaium299), “prefect” (a military commander; according to an inscription at Caesarea, discovered in 1961), and “governor” (a generic title for a leader; Josephus,Antiquities18.55). As Rome’s appointed agent in Judea, Pilate was in charge of the Roman auxiliary troops stationed in Caesarea (Galilee) with a detachment (one cohort) in Jerusalem. Although his headquarters were in Caesarea, he sometimes...

  27. 24 Mary Magdalene: Recognizing the Shepherd’s Voice
    (pp. 329-338)

    Mary Magdalene makes her first appearance at the foot of the cross (19:25), and a second one at the empty tomb (20:1-2, 11-18). The epithet “Magdalene” suggests that she probably came from Magdala, a town on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.¹ This raises the question why she was in Jerusalem. From Mark’s Gospel, we learn that several Galilean women accompanied Jesus during his ministry and went up to Jerusalem during his passion, including Mary Magdalene (15:40-41). Her presence at the foot of the cross would therefore suggest that she is already Jesus’ disciple rather than a mere...

  28. 25 Joseph of Arimathea: Faith and Fear
    (pp. 339-346)

    Joseph, a man from the town of Arimathea in Judea, is mentioned only once in John’s Gospel (19:38), in connection with the burial of Jesus (19:38-42). In this sole appearance, however, Joseph plays an important, representative role because John identifies him as a secret, fearful disciple of Jesus (19:38). Belief coupled with fear is a prominent motif in John’s Gospel, one we will explore further. In the act of burying Jesus, Joseph is also accompanied by the ambiguous Nicodemus, which raises more questions. Worse still, the information about Joseph in John’s Gospel (and other sources) seems conflicting, creating an enigmatic...

  29. 26 Conclusion
    (pp. 347-372)

    In the introduction, I stated that John’s strategy to achieve the stated purpose of his Gospel—to evoke and strengthen belief in Jesus among his readers (20:30-31)—is to present an array of characters who encounter Jesus. The task of this book has been to study these characters and their responses to Jesus within a comprehensive theoretical framework. The aim was to examine whether the majority of scholars are correct in viewing most Johannine characters as “flat” or types, or whether the characters are more complex, developing, and “round.” In keeping with John’s aim, I also intended to challenge readers...

  30. Bibliography
    (pp. 373-406)
  31. Index of Modern Authors
    (pp. 407-414)
  32. Back Matter
    (pp. 415-415)