Tuesday, September 18, 2012

An Interview with Sherri Brown: Gift Upon Gift: Covenant through Word in the Gospel of John: Part I

In a provocative and well-written dissertation (Gift Upon Gift: Covenant through Word in the Gospel of John; Princeton Theological Monograph Series 144; Pickwick, 2010), Sherri Brown argues for the concept of the Old Testament covenant metaphor as the key to understanding the narrative of Jesus as portrayed by the Fourth Evangelist. Brown, who is currently a professor at Niagara University, completed this doctoral work under the expert supervision of Francis Moloney at the Catholic University of America in 2007. Recently, I had the good fortune of interviewing Sherri about her work. Part I of a two-part interview is below. Enjoy!

Sherri Brown standing outside the Temple Mount.


1.       In your Preface (viii.) you mention the origin of your now revised dissertation, Gift Upon Gift. Could you recount the seminar and the project you undertook that lead eventually to this book?

This is an interesting experience for me to recount because sometimes it can be remarkable to look back and see something providential occurring when you didn’t necessarily experience it that way at the time.  We found out the previous spring that Frank Moloney was going to offer a seminar the next fall on John 1-6, and since I had been looking forward to this, I registered.  The department then gathered for an end-of-the year cookout at my house (I was always finding reasons to have a party, but that’s another story).  I remember telling Frank then that I really wanted to work on Cana.  It wasn’t something that I had been planning, I was just certain at that moment that I wanted to do my seminar paper on John 2:1-12.  The next fall when the class met and we chose our passages, I was so eager that Frank just said something like, “we know, we know, you want Cana…”
We had a great seminar and everyone did interesting work.  I was just so compelled to “figure out” this strange dialogue between Jesus and his mother.  I had never been convinced by the work of others and felt sure the symbolism was prominent.  That said, I gladly built on the work of others, including Frank’s own insights on the symbolism of Pentecost across John 1-2, and found myself focusing on the concept of covenant and how the mother becomes a model of how to respond to Jesus’ often enigmatic and provocative words.  After my presentation, and with Frank’s support, we began to talk about how this approach could be extended across the Gospel and, of course, how I could write a dissertation on such a topic.  The rest, as they say, is history...

2.      Talk about the reticence of scholars to embrace the notion of covenant in John’s Gospel, and two, discuss some of the more recent works of Rekha Chennattu, Sandra Schneiders, and Jo-Ann Brant that help lay the groundwork for your own study.

The reluctance of scholars to embrace the presence of covenant imagery and symbolism in the Gospel of John is generally the result of a strict adherence to a historical-critical philological standard whereby if a word does not appear than the corresponding concept cannot be present.  Now, in other parts of our lives we are perfectly willing to accept that we can make a point without ever stating the primary term or concept on our minds.  We even do this purposefully on occasion for effect.  But the concern for eisegesis and general overreaching has led many scholars to refuse to accept this tactic on the part of our biblical authors.  Recently, more literary-oriented commentators like the ones you mention that I reviewed in my book have begun to lay the ground work for recognizing the more nuanced storytelling techniques of the biblical authors in general and the evangelists in particular.  Their work on John spurred me to take the next step and make the somewhat bold claim that not only is the covenant metaphor present in John, it is woven through the very fabric of his rich symbolic world.

3.      You state in your review of the concept of covenant in the OT, that it “…is the guiding literary and theological paradigm of the entire Hebrew Bible” (29). Later in the chapter, you mention that the concepts of “knowledge” and “truth” recall God’s covenants with Israel in the Prophets. How do these and other themes help illumine a covenantal reading of John’s Gospel?

In recent conversations with colleagues who work in the OT, I have learned that many of OT scholars are moving away from the metaphor of covenant as a historically unifying concept in Israel.  Nonetheless, as I tried to show in my work, and as many others have done before and after me, on the literary level the metaphor of covenant can be traced across the story of Israel from beginning to end.  As we read through the narrative we see Israel’s relationship with God grow and the covenant that forms the basis of this relationship develop and deepen.  Once we get to the 8th c. prophets, especially Isaiah and Hosea, we see the challenge to Israel by way of the accusation of breach of covenant. This is all based on the concepts of knowledge and truth.  Knowing God and relating to God in truth is right relationship, whereas failing to know God and not living in truth is breach of covenant.  These ideas permeate the prophets even though they rarely use the term covenant.  We see much of these same ideas in John.  Across this Gospel the Evangelist wants to show that Jesus challenges people and what they think they “know.”  Every time one of Jesus’ dialogue partners claims to “know” something from within a closed religious system, Jesus pushes them to see the truth of God’s action in the world.  Sometimes they respond positively, sometimes negatively, and sometimes they take some time to come around, like Nicodemus.  To live in the truth of the love and knowledge of God, then, is the fundamental purpose and the overarching hope of the OT covenant relationship.  John presents Jesus as the new gift of truth, if only those he encounters can see it and hear his words. This is, of course, is how John can use the symbolism and imagery of covenant without ever using the word.

4.      Could you describe how the dialogues, particular to John’s Gospel, help manifest the underpinnings of the concept of covenant, for instance, in the case of the wedding feast at Cana (2.1-12)?

Unlike the Synoptic Gospels where Jesus teaches primarily through parables, we all observe that John’s Gospel presents Jesus as teaching through long discourses, most of which begin as dialogues.  In this way, Jesus encounters people and begins to converse with them where they are, but it isn’t long before he begins to push them past their comfort level and begins to challenge their ideas about how God works in the world.  At the wedding feast in Cana, we see the ground laid for how this is going to play out, though this first dialogue is quite brief and the mother of Jesus responds completely positively.  The festive scene is set and all the characters come together, but are immediately faced with a potentially shameful situation.  The mother of Jesus brings it to him and they have a brief, highly symbolic dialogue during which she responds by telling the servants (and readers) to do whatever he says. 
An overview of the covenant narrative of Israel’s scriptures produces five fundamental characteristics of the essence of biblical covenant texts and the covenantal relationship these texts emanate. The first and most basic characteristic is the aspect of chosenness. The second element characteristic of the OT covenant relationship is the offer of covenantal promises. Those chosen by God to participate in covenant relationship are made promises as part and parcel of establishing that particular obligation. The third characteristic that manifests is the corollary human response to the first two covenantal moves on God’s part: covenantal obedience in action. The first three characteristics of the OT covenant relationship each build upon the former to establish the relationship itself. Taken together, these three characteristics and the resultant relationship they form make possible the fourth characteristic: the abiding presence of God in creation and in the lives of those who accept the covenantal offer. Articulating the final characteristic of the OT covenant relationship in many ways brings us to the purpose of the entire activity: making God known in creation. The fifth basic characteristic is thus the knowledge of God. This knowledge includes understanding God’s binding loyalty (in terms of steadfast covenant love) and faithfulness (in terms of truth) in kinship with his people (see Hos 4:1–3).   The flourishing of this knowledge of God through the dynamic of daily living in covenantal obedience breathes life into the relationship between God and his people. Likewise, however, the failure or wearing out of this knowledge (see Isa 5:13) threatens the very existence of the covenantal relationship. This is the essence of this relationship and when these characteristics are overwhelmingly present in this literature, then the underlying fabric is covenant even if the term is not used by the biblical author.
The wedding scene at Cana is filled with the language and symbolism of covenant and even the backdrop of Pentecost.  The mother of Jesus becomes the model for how to respond to Jesus and her response becomes the one against which all others can be measured as Jesus’ ministry proceeds.  The ensuing dialogues become lengthier, more complex, and more intense, but they work in this same way.

5.      How does the Fourth Evangelist treatment of the feasts in 5-10, relate to the Johannine community?

In biblical literature, the feasts of Israel are presented as cultic celebrations that recall God’s saving action in the past and render that action present in the current community. The celebration of these festivals was also intimately connected with the experience of God’s covenantal action in and with creation.  If the Johannine Christians were indeed being expelled from the synagogues (see 9:22; 12:42; 16:2), they were not simply being excluded from these celebrations (a social experience), they may have felt that they were losing contact with the God of creation and God’s covenantal saving action in history (a religious experience).  As believers in the saving action of the Christ event, they were taught that covenantal relationship with God is engendered through the Word of Jesus.  But this still presents a problem: what about these feasts and the experience of God’s presence they facilitate?  Not only does the Fourth Evangelist have to care for the community members pastorally because they are no longer in that world, he also has to show God’s fidelity to them and God’s continuing presence in their lives as members of the new covenantal community.   This reshaping of the experience of God in the life of the community is the background for the indications of the feasts of Judaism in the Gospel (see 5:9b; 6:4; 7:2; 10:22).   The evangelist renders christological the feasts of Judaism.  It is Jesus the Christ who is now the perfection of Jewish liturgy and theology.   It is Jesus the Christ who reveals God’s presence in the ongoing lives of the community.  John 5–10 is the focus of the evangelist’s teaching on this topic as he describes Jesus’ actions and teaching during two major festivals of Judaism, Passover and Tabernacles, as well as during the feasts of Sabbath and Dedication.  The climax of John 10 is the revelation that Jesus and God are one.  

1 comment:

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