Monday, July 6, 2015

A Review of Christopher Skinner's Reading John

With plenty of valuable introductions available on the Fourth Gospel (e.g. Anderson's, Burge'sEdwards' [2nd edition, forthcoming], Köstenberger's, Kysar's, etc.), and another forthcoming from the pen of renowned NT and Johannine scholar, Richard Bauckham one might be forgiven for asking: "Why another introduction on John's Gospel?" Enter Christopher Skinner and his Reading John (Cascade Companions; Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2015), who quickly turns the above question on its proverbial head, asking: "Why not another introduction on John's Gospel?" Granted, in order to change the question, the introduction has to make a unique contribution to the ever-crowded scholarly landscape on the Fourth Gospel. I am happy to say that Christopher Skinner's Reading John exceeded my already high expectations and will be my go-to resource for any future classes I am privileged to teach on John.
Christopher W. Skinner

Why such high expectations, one may ask? To start, Christopher Skinner, Associate Professor in the Department of Religion at Mount Olive College, is one of the brightest young Johannine scholars going today, as he has already written a published dissertation under the great Francis Moloney, entitled, John and Thomas--Gospels in Conflict? Johannine Characterization and the Thomas Question (Princeton Theological Monograph Series 115; Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2009), edited and contributed to the monograph, Characters and Characterization in the Gospel of John (Library of New Testament Studies; London: T &T Clark, 2013), and is currently working on a volume with another young, bright Johannine scholar, Sherri Brown on Johannine ethics for Fortress Press. In addition, Skinner has written several articles and essays on the Fourth Gospel. One would be hard-pressed to find a better candidate to enter the fray of Johannine introductions.

One is quickly impressed with Skinner's economy. Unlike many of the aforementioned introductions, Skinner does as much if not more in less space. Weighing in at a scant 145 pages, excluding indices, Skinner manages to cover all of the bases of what an introduction on the Fourth Gospel should include. Second, Skinner's writing style is winsome. One will not find a ton of technical, scholarly jargon, if avoidable. If unavoidable, Skinner gives brief definitions along the way, thereby not hindering the reader. Also, Skinner gives examples from TV shows, movies, etc. that help facilitates understanding. For example, the detective show, Columbo (self-disclosure: I'm a fan), begins every show with a person premeditating and committing a murder. The viewer gets to witness this unfold while Columbo comes on the scene later in the story and tries to solve the crime that only the viewer and perpetrator are privy to. Skinner uses this example (9-10) to introduce John's Prologue (1:1-18), where "the Prologue reveals to the reader information that is necessary to evaluate the unfolding events in the story" (9). While the readers/hearers of the Gospel are privy to this inside information, much like the viewer of Columbo, the characters in John are not, much like Lt. Columbo as he arrives at the crime scene, unaware of how the crime took place.

Yet another help to the reader of Reading John is the various sidebars included throughout the volume. I counted 25 such "tables" throughout the book, ranging from the Septuagint to the responses of Jesus to Nicodemus in 3:3, 3.5. These tables highlight such important Johannine features such as the "I am" sayings, the "Double Amen" formulations, the theme of misunderstanding, the Jewish festivals and much, much more. Every literary feature unique to John's Gospel Skinner highlights, making a very convenient guide for the reader.

As far as the structure of the book goes, the material is spread out over eight chapters. Chapter one, "Reading John: Where to Start?" (1-7) orients the reader around five key tenets of interpretation, namely, the recognition that John was written for a first-century audience, was written in Greek, was anonymously written (despite the appellation "John" that has been attached to it), is an autonomous narrative and deserves to be read on its own terms, rather than through the Synoptics, and finally, the reader is warned that there is no such thing as a "plain reading" of the text, as readers bring their own presuppositions to the text. Chapter two, "John's Prologue: The Interpretive Key for Reading the Gospel of John" (8-31), is perhaps this reviewer's favorite chapter of the book.  Skinner brings his expertise to bear on this topic as he has written on it extensively elsewhere, both in his revised dissertation, John and Thomas, as well as an excellent essay, "Misunderstanding, Christology, and Johannine Characterization: Reading John's Characters through the Lens of the Prologue" (111-127) in Characters and Characterization. Among other things, Skinner demonstrates reoccurring themes found in the prologue that are developed throughout the rest of the Gospel (e.g. life, light, darkness, sent, witness, the world, etc.), the connection of these motifs to the Jewish Festivals (Table 2.5, 21), and concepts mentioned in the Prologue that one should keep in mind as the reader explores John further (30). Further, Skinner also provides the reader with questions at the end of each chapter ("Reflection") that help drive the content home.

Chapter 3, "A Tale of Two Stories: John's Two-Level Drama"(32-46) is, in fact, one of  the most important chapters of the book. Having taught the Fourth Gospel before, I was hesitant to dive into the various Johannine Community Hypotheses (e.g. Martyn, Brown, etc.), and wish I would have been armed with Reading John when I had. Whatever one thinks about the Johannine community theories, one is faced with the fact that the majority of scholarship favors a view that the Gospel was written to a community that was facing persecution, namely, one that was being evicted from the synagogues (John 9:22; 12:42; 16.:2). Therefore, the reader needs to read John's story simultaneously as a story about a community at a specific point in time as well as a story about Jesus. Skinner does an admirable job of giving the reader an overview of the major interpretations, both pro and con of this hypothesis.

Chapter 4, "John, Jesus, and Judaism: Is the Gospel of John Jewish and Anti-Jewish at the Same Time? (Or, is the Gospel of John Schizophrenic?; 47-67)" addresses perhaps the thorniest of all topics regarding the Fourth Gospel. Skinner rightly insists that hoi Ioudaioi refers to the Jewish leaders in John's Gospel and is a technical term for Jesus' enemies (60-64). This is important to note in that hoi Ioudaioi is limited in scope and in no way speaks to Jews in general or to Jews as a large representative group. When reading the Gospel, readers need to be sensitive to this fact is the incalculable harm that has been meted out to the Jewish nation under the flag of Christianity.

Chapter 5, "An Alien Tongue: The Foreign Language of the Johannine Jesus" (68-95), the longest chapter in the book, explores the "I Am" statements (70-78), the use of irony (79-91), the "double Amen" sayings (91-93), and literary asides (94-95) found in John's narrative. The chapter is well organized with copious examples of each literary feature, sharpening the reader's perception of John's unique Christology and theological emphases.  Chapter 6, "John's Characters and the Rhetoric of Misunderstanding" (96-122), follows closely on the heels of the previous chapter and also demonstrates Skinner's expertise as he provides a mini-primer on narrative criticism and characterization. Helpfully, Skinner helps the reader by fleshing out what this looks like when he uses Peter, the misunderstanding character par excellence of the Fourth Gospel (102-121). This reviewer learned much from this chapter, one such example (112-113) being the verbal connection where Peter is warming himself by the fire in the courtyard of the high priest along with slaves and guards, stating that Peter "was with them" (John 18:8b), the same phrase used of Judas among the arresting party of Jesus in 18:5. The implication being, of course, that the narrator expects the reader/hearer to make the connection between Judas and Peter as the preeminent examples of Jesus' betrayers.

Chapter 7, "Putting the Pieces Together: Reading John 3:1-21,"(123-142) provides the reader with a working synthesis of the material Skinner has presented in chapters 1-6. Again, Skinner's skill as a scholar and more importantly, a teacher, come to the fore here making this an ideal text for students of all ages. Wisely choosing the rich story of Nicodemus' encounter with Jesus, the author is able to pull all the strands of themes present in the previous chapters. The reader gets to see how the Prologue, the theme of irony and misunderstanding work themselves out in this narrative unit.

Last, but not least, Skinner briefly addresses the challenges if reading John theologically in chapter 8, "Postscript: Reading John Theologically?" (143-146). To read John theologically, Skinner notes that the intersection of three axes needs to be kept in the forefront of any theological interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (143). One, John's own first-century cultural context, two, major concerns, iterations of Christianity throughout the centuries, and three, the cultural contexts of contemporary readers (143). Skinner notes that the dualistic worldview of the Fourth Gospel makes theological interpretation difficult but not impossible as he encourages "a move forward with an imagination worthy of John's theological vision and a sensitivity to the frailty of the human experience" (145).

In sum, Skinner has provided the beginning student with a first-rate introduction to John's Gospel. It does not end with the student, however, as he has also provided the teacher of the Fourth Gospel a handy, convenient, intro that keeps both teacher and student engaged, no easy feat, but Skinner is up to the task. Reading John has me chomping at the bit to teach the Gospel again and I have a feeling I will be using it as the required text for the foreseeable future.


Spoiledmilks said...

Hey, Matt, thanks for the review. I'm reading and enjoying it too right now, but there is one thing I'd like to see what you think about. Skinner doesn't believe everything in the Gospel is historical, but that it is there to make a point. As an example, on pages 41-42 Skinner uses an image of the civil rights movement with Obama in the picture. We know Obama wasn't old enough to join in the march, but the fact that he is America's first president gets the point across: the civil rights movement succeeded. So some stories in John didn't happen, but they are there to make a point: you're either with Jesus or you aren't.

I'm not comfortable saying that some of the stories are just made up to make a point, although I do see the benefit the author of John's Gospel would be doing for the community if this were the case. I was hoping I could get your thoughts on this and see if you knew any more about this idea than I do.

Thanks, Matt.

Christopher W. Skinner said...

Spencer, I just saw your comment here. I would love to dialogue with you about this question if you'd like. Feel free to contact me at skinnier[at] and I'll gladly discuss these issues with you.



Spoiledmilks said...

Thanks, Chris. I'll email you shortly.