Friday, October 15, 2010

J. Ramsey Michaels Interview Part III

Here is the final installment of my interview with J. Ramsey Michaels. I hope this interview has been as beneficial for you as it was for me. It was an immense honor to be able to ask the author about his commentary that will be a landmark on John's Gospel for many years to come.

1) One of the refreshing aspects of your commentary is your repeated insistence to interpret John's Gospel in its final, canonical form. One place where this becomes an issue is John 20:1-18, where Mary Magdalene is the first to discover that Jesus' tomb is empty. There has been widespread insistence that because Mary sees the 'two angels' in Jesus' tomb (20:11), as opposed to what Peter saw (20:6-7), and more ambiguously what the beloved disciple saw (20:8), that there must be two different stories now conflated in the Johannine narrative, and that to ultimately resolve this difficulty many see that verse 11 should follow on the heels of verse 1. What do reconstructionists sacrifice when they dissect the text in this manner?

Ramsey Michaels
In a word, coherence. My responsibility is to make sense of the text as it stands, so far as I am able. And I do so, though not without ambiguity. That’s not all bad, because ambiguity is part of the reading experience, at least where truly great literature is involved. In a footnote I draw a comparison to John Fowles’ novel, A Maggot, in which two different scenes in a cave are reported. No one proposes two different sources for this because it is simply part of the story. Why do we do so with ancient literature? Would it even occur to us to do so if there were not three other Gospels with which we are compulsively comparing the Gospel of John? I don’t think so.

2) Scholarship has long held that the 'signs in the presence of the disciples' mentioned in John 20:30 are to be identified with the series of seven (2:23; 3:2; 6:2; 7:31; 9:16; 11:47) mentioned in the first half of the Gospel. Discuss why you believe that 'signs' points to something more immediate in the context of John's narrative.

I’m definitely in a minority here (me and Hoskyns are out there by ourselves). But the signs in the first half of the Gospel have already been terminated, in 12:37. They failed to produce faith. These signs are “in the presence of the disciples,” and presumably them alone, and those addressed as “you,” in “that you might believe” are also disciples or potential disciples. The signs in the first half of the Gospel are not limited to the disciples (except maybe the Cana wedding), but are more public in nature, especially in chapters 5, 6, 9 and 11. True, the resurrection appearances are not called “signs,” but I see an analogy to the “many infallible proofs” in Acts 1:3. I think scholars have become so enamored of the so-called Signs Source that it blinds them to the immediate context of chapter 20.

3) One of the most fascinating aspects of your commentary comes at the very end (1057-1058) when you discuss the final verse of John's Gospel (21:25). You discuss the canonical placement of John's Gospel, and note that in this particular verse "it is hard not to notice how appropriate it is as a colophon..." to the four Gospels (1057). Could you elaborate a bit more on this?

In contrast to 20:31, there is no reference to “this book,” as if only one book is in view. It is obviously a fitting conclusion to the fourfold Gospel. I suppose the usual view is that it helps explain why John was placed last, but I suggest that it may have been the work of whoever decided to place John last, interrupting the sequence of Luke and Acts. In a final footnote I mention that the only first person singular “I” in the Gospels other than Luke 1:3 occurs here. In our canonical text, it is followed immediately by another “I” at the beginning of Acts. On a somewhat whimsical note, I asked, Could these two “I’s” be the same? Definitely whimsical, for it could imply that the author of Luke-Acts was responsible for the first compilation of the fourfold Gospel, placing John between his own first and second volumes. He would thus be the first canonical editor, so to speak. It sounds off the wall, even to me, and it is not something I am in a position to pursue, but it is curious. I’ll let others have fun with it.

4) In the section of your introduction, Theological Contributions (39-42), you mention that John's Gospel is as much about God as it is Jesus, especially in its christology and soteriology. Could you talk a bit about why scholars have neglected this theme, and how Bultmann's contribution is important in this regard?

I don't mean to imply that this theme has been totally neglected by any means. At one level it has been recognized, especially by Marianne Meye Thompson, in God in the Gospel of John (I do think she sensed some degree of neglect, and I agree with her).

I suppose because the Jesus of this Gospel is such a striking figure, to some degree in contrast to the other Gospels. Readers either love him or hate him. Consequently, there has been a fascination with christology to the partial neglect of theology proper. Maybe what is somewhat new in my presentation is the application of all this to soteriology as well as christology

Actually, my admiration (or call it a love-hate relationship) with Bultmann does not have directly to do with this particular issue. Well, except for maybe one thing: he does say, famously, "Jesus as Revealer reveals only that he is the Revealer." True so far as it goes, but if he is the Revealer, he is the Revealer of God, that is, of God as Father. In that sense, Bultmann's formulation is inadequate.

5) As a lifelong student of John's Gospel, this was a chance for you to distill 50 years of reading and research into this commentary. What is your hope that your contribution will have on future research of John's Gospel?

That's harder. Very general questions are always harder for me. I just hope the commentary fosters respect for the text, meaning the text as it stands. I am not the first to insist on this. I learned it from C.H. Dodd. Also, I would make a plea to just bracket the historical questions ("Did it really happen?") once in awhile, and just enjoy the story. Of course the historical questions are there, and we will always return to them. But when our concern for them leads us to chop up the story into pieces of early tradition that might agree or disagree with the other Gospels, maybe we should stop and ask ourselves what are we gaining and what are we losing? But obviously there is no one right way to read the Gospel of John, or to write a commentary.

6) Your approach to the Gospel of John, namely a literary one, has dovetailed into other interests, such as Flannery O'Connor and her works. Talk a bit about your other interest in modern American Literature and the volume on O'Connor (The Terrible Speed of Mercy: Flannery O'Connor and the Bible; Baylor University Press; forthcoming) that you are currently writing?

As to my interest in American literature, it has been a hobby with me for quite some time, and in "retirement" one is freer to indulge one's hobbies to the full. Flannery O'Connor's fiction is so rich in biblical and theological allusions that the book I am working on is one that has begged to be written. What is interesting is that she was a Catholic (a pre-Vatican II Catholic at that) and I am a Baptist. Yet her most intriguing characters are rural Fundamentalist, Baptist or Pentecostal types. From the start I realized that we had much in common. The O'Connor scholar I respect most is Ralph Wood at Baylor, a fellow Baptist.

I have other interests as well. My book collecting mania has led me into an interest in American religious history, and I have an article in press for The Harvard Theological Review on "Charles Thomson and the First American New Testament." This should be out early next year.

Thanks Ramsey for the generosity of your time and for your wonderful contribution on John's Gospel.


David Beirne said...

Again, his personal insights--I had no intention of pursuing this volume, but now I really want to! Honestly, I think it's the first time I remember an interview with the author convincing me to buy the book. Can not remember that ever having happened.

David Beirne said...

I believe this is the first time an interview has ever convinced me to buy a book. Seriously, I had no intention of pursuing Dr. Michaels' work and now I am putting it on the wish list. I've read no excerpts except here, but just the glimpses into this man's heart are so encouraging.

Matthew D. Montonini said...


Hello. I am so glad that you found this interview edifying.

Believe me, this commentary is worth every penny and should be on the shelf of every student of the New Testament.