Character Studies in the Fourth Gospel: Narrative Approaches to Seventy Figures in John. Edited by Steven A. Hunt, D. Francois Tolmie, and Ruben Zimmermann. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013. 724 pp. Hardcover, $219.00.
Most JOTGES readers will experience sticker-shock at a $219.00 price tag. However, this book is a gold mine. You may (as I did) want to testdrive a library copy before taking the plunge.
Character Studies examines seventy characters who appear in John. They are examined in sixty-two of sixty-four chapters, a list approaching completeness. The forty-four authors (a few famous ones) differ somewhat in their methodologies. They reflect varying degrees of liberalism, not conservatism. None of the authors seems attuned to the freeness of grace. Sixteen authors mention John 20:31 as the book’s purpose; twenty-eight do not. Those mentioning the purpose do so merely in passing. Even so, eye-opening insights appear with some regularity within the 724 pages.
What is the benefit of such a book? Commentaries generally limit themselves to snapshots of characters from individual contexts. Biographical articles in Bible encyclopedias do not limit themselves to information contained by a single book. By contrast, this book allows us to consider each character (whether an individual or a group) throughout John’s Gospel.
Here and there, an author in Character Studies offered a different angle on a person than had crossed my mind before. Sometimes, the case was persuasive, sometimes not. However, it was valuable to consider John from a different vantage-point, the tapestry of characters with whom the Lord interacted in presenting the message of life to Israel and (through John) to the readers.
Why is it important to consider characters specifically? Our focus upon passages within a book tends to lose sight of the characters themselves. When we think of (for example, Peter) our minds do not narrowly focus upon how John presents him. Yet, as an evangelistically-focused book, John would be (for many) the first acquaintance with these characters. It is valuable for us to step back and see these characters as if for the first time. A number of the authors in Character Studies offer fresh glimpses through a consideration of what John alone says about individuals or groups appearing in his book.
This volume investigates the role of figures in John’s Gospel, both for individuals and group characters. The seventy appear in order of presentation (generally one character per chapter). Pages 34-45 serve as a handy concordance to the passages where each character appears. For characters with multiple designations (e.g., the NT calls Peter: Simon, Peter, Simon Peter, or Cephas), the passages are broken down between Peter and his other names.
The list of seventy is fairly complete: John 1: John (the Baptist), the world, the Jews, the priests, the Levites, the Pharisees, the disciples of John (Baptist), an anonymous disciple, Andrew, Peter, Philip, Nathaniel; John 2: Jesus’ mother, the twelve, the servants, the master of ceremonies, the bridegroom, Jesus’ brothers, the animal sellers/moneychangers; John 3: Nicodemus, a Jew; John 4: the Samaritan woman, her husbands and non-husband, the men of Sychar, the Galileans, the royal official, his son, his slaves/household; John 5: the ill people who were healed and those who were not, the lame man, the crowd; John 6: the boy with loaves and fish, Judas Iscariot; John 7: the authorities, the chief priests, the temple police; John 8: the Greeks, the scribes and the elders, the adulterous woman, the elders, the Devil; John 9: the man born blind, his neighbors, his parents; John 10: the Trans-Jordan believers; John 11: Lazarus, Mary (of Bethany), Martha, Thomas, Caiaphas; John 13: the beloved disciple; John 14: Judas (not Iscariot); John 18: Annas, the soldiers at Jesus’ arrest, Malchus, those in the courtyard, Pilate, Barabbas; John 19: the soldiers who crucified Jesus, the co-crucified men, the women by the cross, Mary Magdelene, Joseph of Arimathea; John 20: the angels; John 21: Zebedee’s sons, two others of His disciples.
This book is for those willing to wrestle with the text. It is not for the undiscerning, but a steep price-tag means that only specialists will purchase it. However, pastors and others wanting to delve deeply into John’s Gospel should consider seeing the inter-library-loan (ILL) librarian at a local library. This book has some character; it is worth a long look.
John H. Niemelä
Message of Life Ministries