Wednesday, September 19, 2012

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

Sherri Brown, author of Gift Upon Gift: Covenant through Word in the Gospel of John (Princeton Theological Monograph Series 144; Pickwick 2010) and professor at Niagra University, answers more of my questions regarding her revised dissertation under the supervision of Francis Moloney at the Catholic University of America (2007) in the second part of a two-part interview.  For the first installment click here.
Sherri Brown (center), with students on the Rabbi steps in Jerusalem.

1.       Could you discuss the dual roles Jesus plays as both plaintiff and judge in his heated exchange with the “Jews” in 8:31-59?

As a literary piece, John 7–8 is one of the most difficult movements in all of the gospel narratives. When the dialogue between Jesus and the Jewish leaders and the crowds in the temple during the Feast of Tabernacles reaches its climax (8:31–59), it is the most passionate, and even vitriolic, conflict narrated in the Gospels. Both sides of this encounter are very heated: “the Jews” accuse Jesus of having a demon (v. 48), and Jesus calls them children of the devil, the father of lies (vv. 42–47). The entire encounter brings the people (and the readers) to a crisis, to a point where they are forced to begin to make decisions about where they stand in the mounting christological conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities.
The gulf separating Jesus and “the Jews” that he encounters at the feast of Tabernacles is a profound closedness. Readers of John 7–8 have the prologue resonating in their ears as they listen to Jesus’ teaching in this most heated segment of his public ministry. They have been given information about Jesus and the glory of God’s action in and for the sake of the world. Thus, when readers experience Jesus verbalizing what God is doing through him in the tenor of his own voice, there is room for his word. “The Jews,” who stand outside the world of the prologue, are ultimately not open to hearing and seeing God the Father in the voice and person of Jesus the Son.  Although many can come to a partial faith in the messianic mission of Jesus when it rings familiar to their long-standing religious system, they cannot take root and abide in his word when he reveals the full implications of the life-giving truth of his messiahship. They cannot appreciate nor participate in the openness of the very figures of their religious history to which they appeal. Thus, even as authentic progeny, they choose to remain outside the covenantal realm of the children of God. The covenantal challenge given by Jesus to “the Jews” in the setting of the feast of Tabernacles is initially taken up in part by “many of the Jews” (v. 30). However, when the full messianic implication of abiding in the word of Jesus is revealed, they ultimately reject the covenantal gift to become children of God.

For his part, Jesus stands in the temple area in the midst of the feast of Tabernacles that celebrates the experience of God’s care for the children of Israel in the wilderness at Sinai and presents himself as the covenantal mediation of the experience of God’s life-giving care now and forever. As the one challenging what his opponents think they “know,” Jesus serves as the plaintiff in this symbolic covenant lawsuit.  However, at the same moment the participants in the Tabernacles celebration relive their ancestors’ experience of God through rituals of water and light, Jesus shows himself to be the living water and true light that reveals God to all who would open themselves to him and take root in his word, thus empowering them to become the covenantal children of God.  In this way he is also the ultimate judge.  In the dialogue of Tabernacles, Jesus reveals that all that is accomplished in that annual feast is perfected in him through the covenantal love between the true Son and the living Father, now and forever.

2.      During Jesus’ trial, explain how Pilate’s dismissive question, “What is truth?” (18:38) closes the door on his opportunity to be in covenant with God.

Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, is the only new character introduced in the passion narrative.  Because he is a character just introduced to this Gospel narrative and his assumed authority renders his action decisive for the remainder to the story, it behooves readers to pay particular attention to his role in this act of the passion drama. Pilate’s interaction with “the Jews” outside the praetorium is openly hostile and the two parties stand in clear opposition. However, his interaction with Jesus inside the praetorium is more complex. When Jesus’ interactions with his dialogue partners across the Gospel are also considered, we must clarify not only how Pilate’s dialogues with Jesus affect Jesus and where he stands in the Gospel narrative, but also how they affect Pilate and where he stands in relation to the gift of truth that forms the basis for the entire Gospel story.
In their first dialogue inside the praetorium (18:33–38a), Jesus reveals himself as a king whose kingdom is not of the world, but is nonetheless in the world (v. 36). Jesus’ role in establishing this kingdom is testifying to the truth so that all those who are of the truth may hear his voice and enter into and abide in relationship with him (v. 37; see 10:1–21; 13–17). He gives the gift of truth by giving himself both in his revelatory dialogues with those he encounters and, the reader has come to understand, in the giving of his life. According to the prologue, those who receive him (who are of the truth) are empowered to become children of God (1:12).  This self-revelation of Jesus to Pilate and the implicit gift of truth that accompanies it constitute an offer of covenant to Pilate. Pilate has come in to question Jesus openly, and as Jesus does in every encounter across the Gospel, he engages Pilate in a dialogue in which he offers himself as the gift of truth. By responding to Jesus the way Pilate does, with the brusque rhetorical question, “What is truth?” followed by an immediate exit (19:38), Pilate dismisses Jesus’ challenge. Further, he shows that he does not really understand the question, i.e., the truth of relationship in covenant with God that is at stake. By not being open to the revelation of Jesus and the offer of truth, Pilate fails to recognize the gift of truth that is standing in front of him. Therefore his attempts to remain neutral, to act as if the person and fate of Jesus has nothing to with him, also fail (18:38b—19:8). Eventually even his appeals to his own power before Jesus and his attempts to act decisively before “the Jews” fail as well (19:9–15).
The sheep that are of Jesus’ fold hear his voice of truth and enter into abiding covenantal relationship with him as empowered children of God. There are others who, when challenged by Jesus’ revelation of this gift of truth, not only reject the offer of relationship in covenant, but also use all human means to rid themselves of the perceived threat his person and offer constitute.  Pilate, then, constitutes a third possible response to Jesus as the questioner who is given the revelation of truth and the challenge to accept relationship as a child of God that Jesus’ offers.  In the end he proves himself to be so committed to human endeavor and the powers of this world (including his own) that he cannot understand what is really being asked of him. He fails to see the truth when it is standing before him and thus, despite all efforts to exert his own will, hands the Truth over to its enemies to be crucified.

3.      You see John 21 as an epilogue to the rest of the Gospel. How does the treatment of Peter and the beloved disciple instruct the Johannine community to continue to live as covenant-abiding “children of God” (1:12)?

I suggest that John 21 can be understood as an epilogue insofar as it brings the Gospel story beyond its conclusion into the time of its readers and clarifies the form and mission of the community it engenders.  Further, this narrative episode can be contextualized in terms of the problems emerging with the Johannine letters. Broadly speaking, the covenant relationship made possible by Jesus in the Gospel of John leaves its community of readers with only two commands: to love and to believe. However completely these truths are revealed, living through them as a community can become problematic over time when members differ on what exactly to love and to believe. The resulting issues can be summarized as an ecclesial problem and an authority problem.  The former is handled in the first part of John 21 (vv. 1–14), and the latter in the second part (vv. 15–25).  Who is to be included in the community? Everyone.  Who is the authority?  The second part of the epilogue and the reconstitution of Peter suggest the Johannine community should follow the mainstream authority of Peter.  However, the Beloved Disciple is still put forth as the model disciple.  He is the one the community should continue to turn to for a guide to living and loving in the new covenant as children of God.  The narrator closes by describing the unique mandate of the Beloved Disciple (vv. 21–25). He is the paradigmatic disciple and witness. Already in the first century of the church, there is a concern for the recognition of the pastoral role in authority and the testimonial role of discipleship. These roles do not have to be incorporated in one person. They can be, but they usually are not. The best disciple is not necessarily the best shepherd of the community. Therefore, in this Gospel these roles are embodied in two separate characters, Peter and the Beloved Disciple. The narrator then concludes his story by attesting to its limitless nature (v. 25). He speaks in the first person and sends his readers into the world and their shared future as the new covenant community of God as children living in the love and faith of Jesus.

4.      Could you discuss some other projects that you are working on now?

I have several articles recently out or in the pipeline.  I had a great time working with long-time friends Chris Skinner and Kelly Iverson who edited a volume in honor of our Professor and friend, Frank Matera who recently retired.  They presented it to him at the CBA at the end of June in honor of his 70th birthday.  The book is called Unity and Diversity in the Gospels and Paul: Essays in Honor of FrankJ. Matera and my article explores Paul’s theology and is called “Faith, Christ, and Paul's Theology of Salvation History.”  The other two articles in the pipeline have me returning to John, this time exploring characterization.  One of them focuses on John the Baptist and will appear in another volume edited by Chris Skinner and will come out in the spring of 2013 in the Library of New Testament series.  The other focuses on the role of the Greeks in the Gospel and will appear in a massive volume that explores all the characters in the Gospel.  It will also likely come out in early 2013.  At the moment my writing focus is entirely on an introductory level textbook on the Gospel and Letters of John.  It will follow the reading I established in the Giftupon Gift text but be aimed at an undergraduate/parish level. It has been a fun challenge this summer and will likely carry me through the academic year as well.  Further down the road Chris Skinner and I are now talking about editing a volume on virtue in John’s Gospel.  So there is always more to explore and more fun to be had!  Thanks for your interest in my work!

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