Monday, November 30, 2015

An Interview with Johnson Thomaskutty on Dialogue in the Book of Signs: Part I

Recently, I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Johnson Thomaskutty, Assistant Professor of New Testament and Editor of UBS Journal at the Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India, on his recently published dissertation, Dialogue in the Book of Signs: A Polyvalent Analysis of John 1:19-12:50 (Brill).  Currently, Johnson is serving as a Global Research Institute scholar at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Johnson's Dialogue in the Book of Signs is methodologically sophisticated and will be a volume that  Johannine specialists will need to consult for further work in this section of John's Gospel. I have split the interview into two parts, with the second part due to appear later this week.

On to part one of  the interview:

 1. First, can you talk a bit about your experience under the supervision of Prof. Jan G. van der Watt at Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, Netherlands?

I appreciate that question. My Doktorvater Prof. Dr. Jan G. van der Watt deserves great appreciation for his continuous effort in shaping my thoughts and painstakingly going through my dissertation manuscript several times. As a distinguished Johannine scholar, he insightfully molded my academic pursuit with an international outlook. I will remain thankful to him forever. The following things are my observations and experiences with regard to Jan van der Watt: first, he is, on the one hand, one of the friendliest professors I have ever met, and, on the other hand, one of the most analytical and thoroughly experienced scholars not only in the Gospel of John but also in New Testament studies as a whole, Literary Criticism, and Jewish and Greco-Roman rhetoric; second, in our conversations, I was always the beginner of the dialogue and then he, with much creativity and articulation, attuned my thinking patterns toward the expected goal; third, when it comes to the academic standards, there is no compromise on his way. He inspires his students to work at the higher levels by making involved in reading books from his own personal library and also by enabling them to brainstorm multiple layers around the topic; fourth, he gives special exposures to his students by taking them along to other Dutch (and even German) universities and by connecting them with other renowned scholars in the field. I remember that he assigned Prof. Jacobus (Kobus) Kok of the University of Pretoria as my co-promoter, connected me with the Philosophy Department of Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen to discuss the philosophical side of my topic, took me to Utrecht University to discuss the narratorial aspects, and sent me to Leuven University in Belgium to discuss the topic with Prof. Gilbert van Belle; and fifth, we had conversations on the topic mostly in his office. We also had intellectual exchanges through e-mails, at De Refter (university cafeteria), and in some of the restaurants in Nijmegen. Prof. Jan was a great motivation for me to develop the skills of scientific biblical analysis, dialoguing with the biblical texts, originality in thinking, arguing for and against the existing views and propositions, and the best use of interdisciplinary approaches to the biblical texts. Above all, he is one of my distinguished friends.

2. What led up to your exploration of the genre of dialogue in the Fourth Gospel, particularly in the so-called “Book of Signs” (1:19-12:50)?

In my observation, the dialogue of the Gospel of John remained as one of the most significant literary genres without much scholarly attention. The Book of Signs [1:19-12:50] in the gospel is comprised of several dialogue texts. This large block of the gospel is a major dialogue portion in the New Testament connected to the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Our analysis of the Johannine scholarship on dialogue reveals a few gaps. They either lack breadth (only looking at a few dialogues or a certain aspect of dialogue), or depth (only providing a cursory analysis of some dialogues), or both. The following are the four major gaps we identify in the previous scholarship on Johannine dialogue: first, in most of the cases the dialogues are looked at from a diachronic point of view; second, the dialogues of John are mostly analyzed in relation to other aspects or without exclusive focus on them; third, a good number of studies are incomprehensive as the authors treat the texts with wider gaps in between; and fourth, the two major aspects of the dialogue (i.e., character level and narrator-and-reader level) are not treated proportionately by the authors. I felt that filling these gaps requires necessary attempts from the Johannine interpreters so that the dialogue of the Gospel of John may receive adequate attention. Moreover, some important concerns such as treatment of both the explicit and implicit dialogues, consideration of dialogue as a significant genre within the narrative framework of the gospel, a dialogue-centric interpretation of the gospel rather than the habitual practices of narrative-centric interpretations, and the exploration of the contribution of dialogues to the narrative framework of the gospel are brought to the centre of the current discussion. In that sense, the present monograph is an attempt to illuminate dialogue as the most significant literary genre of the gospel by means of a multidimensional and comprehensive analysis. Of course, my original plan was looking at the entire gospel from this perspective. Due to the broadness of the topic and the difficulty in confining the study of the whole gospel within a doctoral dissertation, I changed my plan (in consultation with Prof. Jan) to discuss it within the first twelve chapters of the gospel.

3.How does studying ancient dialogue inform a nuanced reading of the Fourth Gospel?

Dialogue, as a literary genre, was widely in use even before and during the composition of the Gospel of John. As our study follows the synchronic methods, the details in it are intended not to state that John had influences from his predecessors or contemporaries but rather to make all aware of the extensive use of a literary genre that was made use by the Fourth Evangelist. A brief survey of the Sumero-Babylonian, Egyptian, Canaanite, Greek, and Roman religious traditions serves to confirm that dialogue and interactions among the deities themselves and between the pantheon and the human world were part and parcel of the affairs of the ancient world. This pattern of dialogue helps us to understand the dialogues of John between Jesus and the Father, Jesus as the one ‘from above’ and Jews as those ‘from below,’ and Jesus as one who is the ‘word became flesh’ and the rest of the humanity. The philosophical traditions, as in the case of the religious traditions, provide us clues for understanding the existent patterns of dialogue before John. In John, as in the case of Platonic dialogues, it is difficult to distinguish between the voices of Jesus, the protagonist, and John, the author/narrator. As Aristotle identifies ‘conversations with Socrates’ as a literary genre, in John ‘conversations with Jesus’ can be identified as a literary category. While dialogue as a broad category appears in their writings, the philosophers employed that genre at different levels and for different purposes. Similarly, John uses dialogue at a different level and for fulfilling his own literary and theological purposes. Though John employs dialogue as a significant category in his writing, his dialogue has to be treated on its own terms. Furthermore, the Johannine dialogues show striking similarities with the dialogues of the Old Testament. As in the case of the Old Testament dialogues, the Johannine dialogues maintain an “inner-negotiation” and “outer-confrontation” pattern. In the monograph, I discuss these aspects in the introductory chapter so that the readers may get a better grasp of the literary genre used by the Johannine narrator.

4. How does a synchronic reading of dialogue in the Book of Signs better inform the reader?

The primary focus of the diachronic approaches was not on the dialogues/discourses themselves but on their history and sources. Johannine dialogues were discussed in relation to their environs. The aspects like speech units in relation to one another and their interaction within the narrative framework of the gospel were not adequately dealt with. Moreover, the episodic development, dramatic flow, plot structure, and characterization of the dialogues were scarcely looked at. Diachronic studies mostly define the literary phenomenon rather than describing it. At that critical juncture, a study of Johannine dialogue that would illuminate its function within the present text (i.e., by means of synchronic methods) remained as a serious concern. Dialogue in the Book of Signs uses insights from genre, narrative, rhetorical, dramatic, and reader response methods in order to analyze the dialogue texts of John. It helps further to use description and clarification and analytic and synthetic methods to understand the overall nature and function of dialogue in the Book of Signs. The study is an attempt to implement a polyvalent analysis as an overarching approach to pull things together in understanding the overall content and rhetorical thrust of dialogue in John 1-12. This analysis contributes to the advancement of a thoroughgoing interpretation of the dialogue. When we analyze the dialogue texts from a genre critical point of view, we also make use of a polyvalent approach, as an overarching method, to ponder the literary aspects of the Book of Signs. The combined function of the genre components such as content, form, and function are analyzed to determine the nature of the dialogue.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Stephen Fowl and the Virtue of Charity in Interpretation

Stephen E. Fowl, Professor of Theology, Loyola College, Maryland, is known best for his work on Paul (see his Ephesians, Philippians commentaries) and his work in Theological Interpretation of Scripture (see here) has an insightful essay on the latter in the Festschrift for Andrew Lincoln, Conception, Reception, and the Spirit, entitled, "Historical Criticism, Theological Interpretation and the Ends of the Christian Life" (173-186). Fowl does not offer specific methodologies on how theological interpretation should be carried out, but rather points the way forward with an eye towards the future of the enterprise, namely, matters of self-definition.

I'd like to focus on one particularly helpful section of Fowl's essay in this post. He notes:
When theological interpretation of Scripture was trying to get a foothold in the academy there was a good deal of overheated rhetoric from both theological interpreters and historical critics about either the necessity of or the bankrupt nature of historical criticism. I think the time is right to reflect on these relationships in less fevered tones. (178)
After Fowl argues that theological interpretation should employ various interpretive practices, including the various methods of historical criticism (182), he remains reluctant to provide a descriptive account of what theological interpretation should look like. Instead, Fowl takes a prescriptive posture towards the practice of theological interpretation, particularly as it pertains on the interaction with those with whom we disagree. Fowl writes:
Rather than pursuing a method, however, to keep all of the various interpretive interests of biblical scholars in some sort of proper order, theological interpreters would be better served by working to cultivate a set of interpretive virtues which will help them make wise judgments about how to keep theological concerns primary in their interpretive work (182; emphasis mine). 
Fowl recognizes that there is a multiplicity of virtues a theological interpreter should strive to cultivate, but insists that the most important are charity and prudence. My focus is on the former, because what Fowl states here, I believe, has ramifications for all sorts of discourse (political, religious, personal, etc.) and exemplifies Jesus' command of loving one's neighbor (Mark 12:31).

Fowl states:

Charity in interpretation is always directed towards maximizing agreement between interpreters. The point of this is not to reduce disagreement because disagreements are bad and upsetting. Rather charity assumes that if interpreters read each other's works in ways that maximize their agreements, then both the nature and the scope of their disagreements will be clearer and more capable of resolution. Such charity is particularly important when dealing with interpreters and interpretations that come from times, places, and cultures far different from our own. When we seek to maximize the agreements between ourselves and such interpreters we diminish the temptation simply to reduce those interpreters to inferior versions of ourselves who can be easily dismissed. In this respect, when historical critics emphasize how it the temporal and cultural 'strangeness' of the Bible, they are emphasizing a necessary, but not sufficient, aspect of interpretive charity. They see the importance of undertsanding intepreters and interpretations on their own terms (183; emphasis mine).
Fowl takes the notion of interpretive charity a step further when he states:
...the charitable interpreter will want to present alternative interpreters and interpretations in the most positive light possible. This might require going above and beyond the work done by those who hold alternative views; this may involve doing more for one's argumentative opponents than they did for themselves. (183).
In case Fowl could be accused of an artificial attitude of interpretive humility, he goes on to state:

It does not require one to support weak or erroneous interpretations in favor of keeping interpretive peace. There is no reason for charitable interpreters to shy away from disagreement or argument. Indeed, this seide of the eschaton, Christians can expect disagreement and debate will mark all their engagements with Scripture. In such a situation, charity is that virtue that will give us the best chance of resolving are disputes well (183; emphasis mine). 
We would do well to follow Fowl's lead. I believe he has his finger on the pulse of something hugely significant. I, for one, tire of the ad hominem attacks that pervade much of the scholarly, social, political discourse one sees on a regular basis. We have lost sight of the mantra, "Disagree without being disagreeable." Fowl has provided an important insight on how our discourse should take place in the scholarly community, and I argue, his point transcends this very community and gets to the heart of Jesus' command to love one's neighbor.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

C.F.D. Moule on the Historical Jesus

Recently, I was reading C.F.D. Moule's article, "The Christ of Experience and the Christ of History;" Theology 81 (1978); 164-172, when I came across this beautiful quote from a section of the article where Moule argues in part that the worshipped Christ "is continuous with a fully historical figure" (170).

Moule states:
Besides Paul, there are the Gospels, representing, at their latest, collections including very early traditions about Jesus. A good deal is thus known about the character of Jesus. Of course the Gospels present us not with photographs but with portraits, and portraits conceived with varying degrees of freedom; they are all interpretations, not slavish chronicles. Each is different; each is more or less impressionistic. And there are those who deny that any clear-cut, consistent impression of a single sitter emerges through the portraits. But-although I would be among the first to agree that he is much too big to be characterized simply, and that any hope of portraying him may have to be through a succession of paradoxical, partly conflicting impressionsyet it seems to me that certain features do constantly recur. We know Jesus as a man with inflexible singlemindedness and a determination as resilient and hard as steel, and yet with a heart of extreme tenderness and feminine sensitivity; an artist of intense poetic directness, capable of grasping and presenting shattering truths pictorially with a few deft strokes of his brush; and, above all, one who took God with absolute seriousness, so that, wherever Jesus was, there was God's sovereignty, releasing men and women from their fantasies and neuroses and letting them stand free and upright as children of God. Where God is obeyed as intensively as Jesus obeyed him, where God is treated as axiomatic, there things happen which do not happen normally (170-171).