Is John’s Gospel a Defense of Jesus’ Honor?

Is John’s Gospel a Defense of Jesus’ Honor? January 4, 2022

Have you ever wondered whether John wrote his Gospel as a way of defending Jesus’ honor? Derek Tovey considers this question in his contribution (Chapter 14) to Holding Forth the Word of Life: Essays in Honor of Tim Meadowcroft.

Besides the interpretative and theological issues raised, Tovey offers an exceptional example of exegetical contextualization. He again demonstrates how contemporary cultures can help us interpret the Bible better. (I defend and explain this point in One Gospel for All Nations.)

He is careful to let the biblical text speak while being sensitive to how a local culture opens our minds to fresh possible readings.

In the chapter, Tovey draws an analogy between δοξα (“glory”) and the Māori concept of mana. Note: The Māori are the indigenous people of mainland New Zealand. In short, he uses this comparison to explain how John uses “glory” language and concepts “to establish the status and honor of Jesus” (199).

As we’ll see, I think his presentation offers a bridge between “honor-shame” paradigms and so-called “fear-power” cultures.

Māori Mana and Ancient Glory

δοξα-related words abound in John (appearing 40 times in this Gospel). “Glory” has several vital connotations and functions within the biblical text. Just as δοξα was an essential concept for ancient Mediterranean people, so also is mana among the Māori.

Neither δοξα nor mana can be reduced to a single English translation—both concern one’s reputation, status, or worth. When explaining mana, Māori primarily emphasize power and authority. Whoever possesses these are said to have mana.

Tovey’s explanation of mana echoes much of what I’ve said previously about “face” (i.e., mianzi, lian). A person is born with some amount of mana, ascribed according to birth, ancestors, etc. Still, mana is also bestowed by the community based on achievements.

Mana is closely tied to (sometimes even equated with) the concept of tapu, which (he explains) correlates with what is sacred, consecrated, or set apart. Quoting others, Tovey writes that mana is “spiritual power and authority” and “divine power made manifest in the world of human experience” (204). Ultimately, Māori believe it derives from “the gods.”

Someone like a chief or a son gains mana by achieving success on behalf of his tribe or family. Likewise, a person who is derelict in such social roles forfeits mana. Tovey spends several pages showing similarities between mana and δοξα, as the latter was understood by John’s contemporaries.

John Defends Jesus’ Honor

What do we find in John? The brevity of a chapter prohibits Tovey from giving extended attention to developing a theological or exegetical argument. However, his examples spur readers to dig deeper into the Gospel of John.

First, the presentation in John 1 is designed “to establish that Jesus’ status as God’s Son is ascribed” (207). Verse 14 says, “we have seen his glory, glory as of the Father’s only son.” John’s Gospel repeatedly emphasizes the Son’s oneness with the Father.

Such glory, like mana, must be publicly acknowledged. When challenged, one’s mana is defended, yet a person ought not overly to seek after his own mana. Compare this point with texts like John 8:31-59; 10:31-39; others. When challenged, Jesus points to the signs that reveal his glory. They highlight his true power and authority.

Like mana, what is ascribed from birth (δοξα) must become manifest practically in Jesus’ life. Indeed, he eventually states how he achieves his mission from the Father, “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do” (John 17:4).

In a word, Jesus’ inherent divine glory is evident in his human actions, which achieve for him glory via public recognition. This point echoes how Māori understand mana, ultimately seen in the exercise of divine power.

Ironically, John’s account subverts every culture’s conception of honor, mana, δοξα, face, etc. How so? Tovey says,

“The honor that Jesus achieves is gained not by striving for dominance over others but by the seeming weakness of a humiliating death on a cross” (210).

It is Christ’s resurrection that will

“finally and decisively demonstrate his true honor and his status as the Son of the Father. This is a status and an honor in which those who believe in Jesus’ name (belong to his group) mare share (20:17; 1:12, 13, 16; 14:18-24)” (210).

Value for Fear-Power Cultures?

People often distinguish between so-called “honor-shame cultures” and “fear-power cultures.” The categories are oversimplifications, of course, but they can be valuable tools for discussion. I’ve previously suggested a model for related these culture types with “guilt-innocence” cultures. It’s important that we keep in mind that these culture-types are not mutually exclusive and therefore to find points of connection.

From Tovey’s essay, the link between power and mana can be a helpful link between “honor-shame cultures” and “fear-power cultures.” The fact that Jesus’ demonstrations of power lead to honor only underscores the importance of this association. Those who have power attain more honor. Often, the inverse is true as well: those with honor are bestowed with various types of power.

Furthermore, Jesus’ wise, timely, and benevolent use of power in John reorients how readers should understand honor and shame. Accordingly, people in fear-cultures can become more attuned to the subtle honor dynamics that run through numerous social interactions.

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