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.

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