I’ll be teaching a course on John’s Gospel next month for Logos for their Mobile Ed program. I’m looking forward to it although it will be a new experience. It will be an additional treat to go out to the Seattle area for a week. I’ve been teaching John at NPU for as long as I’ve been there – 8 years. In preparation for the course, I picked up Lars Kierspel’s book The Jews and the World in the Fourth Gospel: Parallelism, Function, and Context . It has been a thought provoking read. I met Lars for the first time this past November at the Wifp and Stock reception. He is a sharp chap, and embodies the best of the German approach to research and writing. You can always spot the German researcher because a number of pages in a monograph contain two or three lines of text and the rest of the page is footnotes!!
Lars’s argument is that previous scholarship in dealing with the question of the identity of the oi Ioudaioi (“the Jews”) in John since the Shoah have used faulty methodology in analyzing John’s usage of the term. He offers a corrective by focusing on the narrative as a whole. He criticizes previous scholarship for atomizing the study by focusing only on vocabulary or small units of text. These approaches have led to unconvincing interpretations of “the Jews” in John. Lars puts the term into the frame of the whole gospel to seek an appropriate understanding. When this is done, according to Lars it favors an inclusive understanding of the term “the Jews” denoting an ethnic religious group, but avoids the history of interpretation’s strong anti-semitic, -Jewish tendency. Lars observes what he calls parallelism between the terms kosmos (“world”) and oi Ioudaioi (“Jews”). This parallelism is deep and intentional. The result of the analysis is the conclusion that the “world” is the frame for the “Jews”. The use of the “Jews” depends on the use of the “world”. Lars says, “the particulars of Jesus’ life are translated into universals via the use of kosmos” (153).
I have a few concerns about the methodology Lars used which led to his conclusions – well not so much the methodology but his employment of it. I actually applaud the narratological method. I have questions about the analysis of the distribution of the two terms, the narrative implications of the placement and what conclusions we are able to draw. Just one example will illustrate. A significant plank in his argument is the distribution of the two terms kosmos and Ioudaioi. I see two problems. One problem is his categorization of a “local” point of view for 1:19 through chapter 12. Lars makes this point based on the statistical comparison of the use of the terms in this section: kosmos is used 28 times, Ioudaioi 46 times. Now I’m no mathematician and I do see that Ioudaioi is used a significantly higher number of times. However, kosmos is not infrequently used here either. Lars’s description of kosmos as “not absent from the first twelve chapters” is quite an understatement to be sure. There is clearly a predominance of Ioudaioi but the number of times kosmos is used makes a fine distinction less convincing.
In the end, Lars Kierspel’s book has provoked my thought about the Fourth Gospel and particularly the identity and significance of the “Jews” in the narrative. And I’m thankful. I always appreciate this experience. However, and in spite of the weaknesses of the interpretation – no interpretation is without them – I think the current consensus regarding the “Jews” in John is the best explanation. That is that they are Jerusalem and Temple based Jewish authorities. In this way, there’s both a geographical and religio-poltiical element in the term. But in good apocalyptic form, these are but examples, actualizations on the historical level, of the cosmic realities which the term “world” names. Which, by the way, is everything of created order, an order at war with its creator.