Wednesday, October 13, 2010

J. Ramsey Michaels Interview Part II

Here is the second part of my interview with J. Ramsey Michaels concerning his new commentary on the Gospel of John (NICNT).

Ramsey Michaels
1) We have been conditioned to read John 1.1-18 as a unit, the so-called Johannine prologue. You have instead chosen to focus on John 1.1-5, in what you deem a "preamble"(45). Could you explain why you decided to break with tradition in focusing your attention on this smaller unit? And would it be more accurate to speak of a Phōs Christology than a Logos Christology with regards to this unit and John's Gospel as a whole?

I don’t pretend that Johannine scholarship is going to stop speaking of the Prologue any time soon. However, it became clear to me that 1:6 is clearly intended as the Gospel’s narrative beginning, more or less comparable to the beginning of Mark. To relegate it to the status of an insertion or interpolation, as is so often done, simply does not make sense (at least if one is looking at the Gospel synchronically, as I am). On a diachronic reading, sure, there may have been some form of a Prologue, or early Christian hymn, but as soon as this entity was interrupted by vv 6-8, and maybe v 15, the interruption became the narrative beginning, sot that it is no longer appropriate to speak of "the Prologue" as an entity. Rather, we have a narrative about the coming of John, preceded by a notice about what (or Who) preceded John, in keeping with verse 15, “he was before me.”

I tried to make the point that it is indeed a matter of a Light (rather than Word) Christology so far as this unit is concerned. Less so for the Gospel as a whole, where Word hardly occurs, Light is a conspicuous theme, but more basically it is a Son Christology, in keeping with 1:14 and 18.

2) One fellow blogger wondered what you make of  the ‘cleansing of the temple’ chronology (2:13-22) question?

I do have a note at the relevant place about the temple cleansing (n. 3) describing a harmonistic view that there was a first early cleansing under the auspices, as it were, of John the Baptist (see Mt 21:32, "John came to you . . ."), and then a later cleansing at the beginning of Passion week.

This is actually a view I once held and used to teach, and it is a possibility I guess. But in the text as it stands, Jesus is so obviously acting on his own initiative with no involvement of John that it is pretty hard to defend. If that's the way it actually was, John's Gospel has radically reinterpreted it, so that from an apologetic point of view one has not gained very much. As I say, I prefer to interpret the Gospels one at a time, not try to blend them into a continuous account. If I were to guess as to the historical reality, I would have to go with the majority that the synoptic chronology is probably right.

3)  In your commentary, you provide a reading of John 7.37-8.29 both without the famous story of the women caught in adultery (7.53-8.11), and a reading that includes the disputed story. Knowing that the earliest manuscripts do not include this latter unit, what are some of the advantages of reading this unit within this larger unit, and what do you make of this stories inclusion in the later manuscripts?

I handled it both ways because the passage has been part and parcel of the Gospel as it has been read for many centuries. With the recent accent on the reader as much as on the "original" writer, I felt that this was appropriate.

As I try to show in the commentary, there are some clues in the context as to why it was placed here, one of course being the reference in 8:15 about judging.

One that I did not notice until I actually wrote the commentary is that this "story within the story" is about an aborted stoning, which is what chapter 8 in its entirety is also about (see the ending of chapter 8). In that sense the woman is a stand-in for Jesus himself, who at one point asks, "Who among you convicts me of sin?"

In a similar way, I argue in the next chapter that the man born blind is also at certain points in the chapter a stand-in for Jesus.

In short, it is arguable that this passage about the adulteress is part of John's Gospel as it actually exists, even though it is not "original."

Just an added note. A very concise way of saying what I said in the previous note is that 7:53-8:11 is part of canonical John, even though it is not part of original John. A matter of canonical criticism.

4) Scholars have long posited two separate farewell discourses in John's Gospel (13.36-14.31; 15.1-16.33). Could you explain the pros and cons of holding to such a viewpoint and how you deal with this in your commentary?

In 1970-71 I had a sabbatical in Goettingen, Germany, and I wrote a manuscript for a monograph dealing precisely with the issue of the two farewell discourses, developing the thesis that there were in fact two and that they differed in certain subtle ways: questions in the first, no questions in the second; Jesus answers prayers in the first, the Father answers prayers in the second, etc.

I argued that the original "discourse" consisted only of 13:31-35, that this was expanded first with 13:36-14:31, developing the theme of Jesus' departure stated in 13:33; then 15:1-17:26 was added, developing in reverse order (a kind of chiasm), the themes of mutual love (15:1-1:4a), Jesus' departure (16:4b-33), and his Glorification (17:1-26).

I was quite excited about this, but was unable to get it published. However, it fed into my short commentary in paperback on John that appeared in 1984 and again in 1989. I still believe there is something to it, but I have concluded that my job is to deal with the Gospel in its present form, not with its tradition history. So I refer to it in the commentary, but as a kind of subtext.

Also, I believe that the accent on mutual indwelling in the Vine in chapter 15 must be understood against the backdrop of chapter 14, notably 14:20. That is, the "second" discourse, if you can call it that, in some ways presupposes the first, so that the canonical arrangement is to that extent vindicated. In short, there may well have been two separate farewell discourses at some point in the tradition, but now there are not, and "now" (that is, the canonical text) is what I am dealing with. In short, the theory of two farewell discourses is "interesting," but that's about all.

5) One of the exegetical moments that stood out for me was in John 17:1-26, where Jesus prays for his disciples. Although this prayer is famously known as Jesus' "high-priestly" prayer (17:17, 19) you add that elements of the prayer equally lend itself to being called the "Shepherd's prayer" (17:9-10; 857). Could you discuss how the "abrupt neuter plurals" of vv. 9-10 (865) connect to 10:14-15 where Jesus announces himself as the 'Good Shepherd'?

The neuter plural pronouns have not obvious antecedents in the context. I am arguing that the implied antecedent is ta probata, “the sheep,” from chapter 10, especially vv 14 and 15, where the same pronouns for “mine” and “yours” are used. I do not dispute the notion that this is a “high priestly” prayer (17:17 and 19 bear this out), but Jesus is, after all, explicitly the Good Shepherd in this Gospel, never explicitly High Priest, as in Hebrews. The two designations are by no means mutually exclusive.


David Beirne said...

This is a great interview! Thanks. I really enjoy hearing Dr. Ramsay's thoughts about why he took the approaches he did to the text, and his attitude saying, "Let's just take the text as it stands" without going too much into redaction and source criticism.

pennoyer said...

Enjoyed the interview and look forward to reading the book. I had Dr. Michaels back at Gordon-Conwell for a Jewish Backgrounds course and have always appreciated his work. By the way, another commentary that is excellent for reading is R.T. France's recent volume on Matthew in the same NICNT series. - Ray

Matthew D. Montonini said...

Ray- I agree France's commentary is also top notch: very readable and engaging.

David--Ramsey's approach is very refreshing. I think it makes us focus on what we have, rather than speculating on what we do not.

Toyin O. said...

Great interview.