Do You Know about These Two Unique Features of John’s Gospel?
It has been understood that John’s Gospel is a distinct chronicling of the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. That biblical scholars have cordoned it off from the so-called Synoptic gospels bears witness to this distinction. And if you’ve spent any amount of time with the beloved disciple’s gospel you’ve probably sensed its uniqueness, too.
But do you understand some of the central features that make it distinct? Edward W. Klink III helpfully explains two such characteristics in his new John commentary (ZECNT).
Building on the pioneering work of C. H. Dodd, who “In the twentieth century … provided the most focused analysis” (53), Klink provides readers an extended introduction to two unique features of John in order to help readers interpret it rightly: dialogues and monologues. Of the former he writes:
Unfortunately, interpreters have minimized the functional importance of the dialogues of Jesus in the narrative of the Gospel and have, therefore, misjudged their important role in directing and establishing the theology of the Gospel. (53)
Similarly, interpreters of John’s gospel have neglected or misunderstood the narrative function of Jesus’ monologues. Klink brings clarity through his helpful introduction—which opened up this gospel to me in new ways.
Johannine Dialogues: Functions and Forms
Klink identifies two functions for the dialogues in John’s gospel. First, they serve an important role in developing its broader narrative, where the meaning lies not only in what is said, but in how what’s said moves the plot forward.
The dialogue brings meaning to Jesus’s person and work so that the characters—and therefore the readers—are exhorted to take a particular action, thereby moving the plot along toward it ultimate goal: “that you may believe” (20:31). (54)
Second, the dialogues give meaning and direction to the pericope where they occur. This narrative device serves to offer the necessary material to interpret the more narrow elements of the scenes themselves, as well as move the broader plot forward.
Such insights into the function of a dialogue provide lenses with which to understand the passage’s details and developing movement. Only by understanding the dialogical structure of the scene can the reader make sense of not only its details but also the rhetorical meaning of the interaction. (54)
Johannine dialogues come in three forms: social challenge, taking the form of an informal debate where the honor and authority of the interlocutor is challenged; legal challenge, in which a principle, idea, or point of law is formally debated; and rhetorical challenge, where conflict between two parties is intensified by reestablishing antithetical positions, rather than necessarily advancing an argument.
Klink suggests primarily seven formal dialogues in John’s gospel between Jesus and other characters, utilizing these three forms:
- Nicodemus (3:1–21) social
- Samaritan Woman (4:1–42) rhetorical
- Jewish Crowd (6:22–71) social
- Jewish Authorities and Jewish Crowd (7:14–52) social
- Jewish Authorities (8:12–59) legal
- Jewish Authorities (9:1–41) legal
- Jewish Crowd (10:22–42) social
Like Dodd, he makes clear John used dialogues deliberately in his narrative composition:
Using the conventions and patterns of ancient dialogue, the Gospel’s dialogues offer a dramatic theological presentation that engages the reader at numerous levels, drawing them more fully into the depth of the Gospel story that began in the conflict between darkness and the light (1:5) and ends in the cross. (57)
Johannine Monologues: Functions and Forms
Also unique in John’s Gospel is the use of several extended discourses, or monologues, of Jesus. Klink explains, “a monologue is similar to a dialogue in that it is set in the context of an engagement and conflict, but rather than engaging point for point it allows for a lengthy argument.” (57)
Like dialogues, Jesus’s monologues contain similar elements of rhetoric, challenge, and conflict. They also function similarly: “its significance is not merely the meaning of the language and the propositions of the argument but also what the language does” (57), especially how it is connected to the narrative elements before and afterward.
Klink explains that monologues will contain within the narrative flow dialogue and audience engagement. Yet attention isn’t meant to be on the conflict and resolution inherent within such scenes. Instead, “The monologue brings meaning to Jesus’s person and work so that the listeners—and therefore the readers—are exhorted to take a particular action.” (58)
He identifies four substantial monologues in John’s Gospel:
- The Identity of (the Son of) God (5:19–47)
- The Shepherd and the Sheep (10:1–21)
- “The Hour has Come” (12:20–50)
- The Farewell Discourse (13:31–16:33)
“As a whole, the monologues provide robust insight into the identity of Jesus and the work given to him from the Father,” concludes Klink. “The monologues also serve the narratives by facilitating the Gospel’s plot, depicting in great detail God’s own argument and explication of his person and work in the world.” (58)
Leveraging the important interpretive insights of these two narrative features, Klink helps readers of the Fourth Gospel exegete it with care and precision in order to offer its theological and homiletical insights to those they shepherd.