Book Review: Reading John (Christopher Skinner)

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I’ve always had a hard time with reading the Gospel of John. I love the Gospels because Jesus is in them, but between the four Gospel, John is difficult for me. Pretty much everything Jesus says or does is enigmatic, and they way people respond to him can be just as confusing! I co-taught Mark a few semesters back, and since (and even before) John has been on the back burner with the Synoptics up in front.

When I heard about Skinner’s book Reading John, about a few of the reviews that praised it, and about how short it was I was interested to see if Skinner could teach me to read John.

Skinner teaches at and blogs at Cruxsolablog.

Summary

Chapter One is an outline of the rest of the book. Skinner is not blind to the fact that he sees “the Gospel of John not as it is, but as” he is (2). Skinner has his own lenses in which he reads John’s Gospel, and we all have ours. Despite laboring to be as objective as possible, he knows he still has his own life lenses. It is here where Skinner lays out his main goal: “Above all, I want to help others become better, more perceptive readers of the Gospel of John, with an ability to trace the rhetoric of the narrative from beginning to end” (2). If you take this to mean that you’ll see the flow of the entire Gospel, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Rather Skinner intends to give us the principles of John’s rhetoric so that we can figure out how to read the rest of John’s Gospel.

Chapter Two examines John’s prologue (1.1-18) and how it hints at themes that will be seen throughout the Gospel. After reading the first 18 verses, the readers already know more than the characters do.

Chapter Three shows us how to read John on two levels. Skinner is very good at bridging the cultural divide, and uses an example of Toy Story 3. On one level, TS3 is a fun movie for kids where Andy finally grows up and his toys need to feel like they are wanted. On another level, parents know that Andy represents their own children, and one day their children will grow up, leave home for college, and start off on their own journey. Here, “the Gospel of John tells the story of Jesus while also revealing the story of a community in crisis” (34).

Chapter Four is about the Jewishness and the presumed anti-Jewishness of John’s gospel. Many have used the Gospel of John to attack the Jews, saying they are the ones guilty of the death of Christ. Here Skinner illuminates the Jewish background of John by pointing out the Jewish characters, the Jewish settings, the Jewish Christological phrases (like “lamb of God”), and the Jewish feasts found throughout the Gospel. He shows how “the Jews” are viewed in John, both positively and negatively, and then raises a solution on how to work with the tension.

The focus of Chapter Five is to “examine closely the distinctiveness of Jesus’ speech” (70) giving attention to his I AM statements (including the seven well-known statements and more), the use of irony, double amen sayings, and literary asides (or parenthetical statements).

Chapter Six tells us that, besides Jesus, it is the characters’ actions, not the characters themselves, that are important. In fact, “almost every character exists to serve the narrator’s agenda, which is to clarify the gospel’s exalted Christology” (98). Peter is provided as a test case on how characters misinterpret Jesus.

Having all of this in mind, in Chapter Seven Skinner brings us through John 3. Nicodemus is introduced. He is male, a ruler, a named character, and comes to Jesus at night. Jesus speaks with double entendre, and Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, misunderstands all that the Jewish Jesus says, which, of course, is ironic. The narrator clarifies Jesus’ mission in vv16-21, using terms found in the Prologue (1.1-18).

Chapter Eight is a short postscript telling us how to read John theologically. Skinner says, “[The] Gospel of John ultimately speaks about God and to humanity in ways that remain universally important” (144).

The Spoiled Milk

There were a few issues I had with the book, but I’ll focus on one main view that I disagreed with. And though I disagreed with it, my main issue was a lack of argument/evidence for this view.

Skinner believes that not everything in the Gospel is historical, but is there to make a point. While I disagree, I also don’t think Skinner gives much evidence to back up this view. He says, “Often when I teach the Gospel of John, I find it necessary to point out that even though the gospel presents a sharp conflict between Jesus and the Jewish leaders, such a conflict is historically unlikely. The Jesus movement was likely not big enough during Jesus’ lifetime for such a significant divide to have developed“ (64).

Why does John give his readers unhistorical stories about Jesus? It may very well be that the Gospel is a “theologically stylized narrative with historical roots, which most closely resembles Greco-Roman biography (bios)” (45). According to Skinner, the Johannine community (those receiving John’s gospel and letters) are Jewish and are being expelled from the synagogues by Jewish friends, relatives, and leaders for their belief in Christ. John writes his Gospel so that the Jewish Christians will see themselves in it. They are the “blind man” in John 9, and those who reject them are “the Jewish leaders” who can’t see who Jesus really is. In “narrative terms, ‘the Jews’ represent not any or all people of Jewish origin, but rather those who reject the revelation of God in and through Jesus” (65). Basically, there are only two sides: “those who accept Jesus and those who reject him” (65). I agree this is sentence is true, but I don’t agree that the conflicts in John are unhistorical.

There simply isn’t enough evidence or discussion to convince me of Skinner’s view. I’m no Johannine scholar, so I must remain as one of the “many casual readers of the Bible [who] assume that everything they read in the New Testament reflects ‘what actually happened’” (37).

Recommended?

Despite the above, yes, this book is well recommended. Though I don’t agree with all of Skinner’s points, this is truly an introductory book for John, and one that is written by a scholar. So often the introductory books are written as if you’ve spent years in research on the Bible, but Skinner brings the cookies down from the top shelf and shares his knowledge with everyone interested in the Gospel of John. This would be a good source for required reading in a John class.

But, the main question, did Skinner teach me how to read John? It’s still tough by far, but I would say he has succeeded in teaching me how to read John and in giving me a new interest in this neglected gospel. And that interest is the most important of all.

Lagniappe

Posts

  1. Irony in John’s Gospel
  2. Authentic Belief in John: Word vs Work

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[Special thanks to Wipf & Stock for allowing me to review this book. I was not required to give a positive review in exchange for this book].

Authentic Belief in John: Word vs Work

What does John intend to teach us when Jesus tells Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed”? In his book Reading John, Chris Skinner says that John is an example of those in the Gospel of John “who come to follow Jesus as a result of specific signs they have witnessed” versus “those who follow on the basis of Jesus’ word” (129).

Signs

When it comes to Jesus’ signs, many who choose to follow him because of his grand signs end up either falling away or misunderstanding his message.

In John 2, Jesus cleanses the temple in Jerusalem. Zeal for God’s house had consumed him (2.17; Ps 69.9).

In John 3, Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night (Jn 3.2; 1.5, 10). Nicodemus speaks to Jesus three times. The first time he relays knowledge that he and the other Pharisees know Jesus is a teacher form God, “for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Yet when Jesus answers him, Nicodemus doesn’t understand what Jesus means [see the post on Irony in John here].

In John 6, Jesus feeds 5,000 people. “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, ‘This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!’” Verse 15 tells us Jesus withdrew from them because they wanted to make Jesus King (by force, at that). They didn’t understand his purpose (3.16-17).

Later, others follow him because they want to see a sign (6.26). Once Jesus says, I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh,” it’s all over for most of his followers. Many of them turned away (6.66). They misunderstood his message.

John 12.37 says, “Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him.“

Word

“On the other hand, those who act on or believe in Jesus’ word are the ultimate models of belief and faithfulness” (129).

In John 2 before Jesus has performed any signs, his mother (whose name is not given) tells the wedding servants to “do whatever he tells you” (2.5). No signs have yet been performed, yet she trusts his word. Later she is one of the women standing at his cross while all of the disciples but the Beloved have gone to hide.

In John 4 Jesus speaks to a nameless woman. One who had five previous husbands, and is with a sixth man who is not her husband. Besides the fact that she’s speaking with the true Husband (fulfilled by being #7?), Jesus, having performed no miraculous signs, says to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father” (4.21). In verse 25, of all people, this nameless, loose, Samaritan woman believes Jesus is the Messiah and goes out to tell others about this Messiah, “a man who told me all that I ever did.”

Thomas

What about Thomas? Thomas was not with the disciples when they first saw the resurrected Jesus. When they told Thomas about seeing Jesus, he wouldn’t believe them. He would only believe if he also saw Jesus. (For this, Thomas often gets a bum rap, but would we not have done the same?)

In 20.27 Jesus shows up on the scene and tells Thomas,

“Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20.27-29).

Thomas believed according to the sign of the nail and spear marks. Yet throughout John many (I haven’t reviewed at every case) either fell away from or misunderstood Jesus. How much greater is it to not have seen and yet believe?

What About the Purpose of John?

John 20.30-31 says, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

If people who believed the signs misunderstood Jesus or fell away, why does John give us these seven signs? The difference between us and them is we are reading about the signs. They saw them. We have to make the choice between believing what we read, which includes believing Jesus’ words and his ability to perform miracles, or playing the part of Nicodemus misunderstanding what Jesus says.

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Irony in John’s Gospel

I’m reading a book by Chris Skinner of Cruxsolablog called Reading John (review). Throughout the book Skinner takes a rhetorical approach to John’s Gospel and shows the reader how to read John by the way John begins his Gospel, the way he portrays his characters, and they way they interact with Jesus.

In his chapter called An Alien Tongue, he gives us some examples of irony.

John 1.5

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

The Greek term here… [katalambanō]… can be used of comprehending as well as overcoming. It is functioning ironically here, because both nuances prove to be as true as the narrative progresses; those who are shrouded in darkness fail to understand Jesus and while the forces of darkness attempt to overcome Jesus, they ultimately fail (86).

John 7.33-36

Jesus then said, “I will be with you a little longer, and then I am going to him who sent me. You will seek me and you will not find me. Where I am you cannot come.” The Jews said to one another, “Where does this man intend to go that we will not find him? Does he intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks? What does he mean by saying, ‘You will seek me and you will not find me,’ and, ‘Where I am you cannot come’?

The reader knows more about Jesus than the characters, for John gives the reader the Prologue (1.1-18). We know that Jesus is the Word who was with God and who is God (1.1). He came into the world (1.9) and lived among people (1.14). So the reader knows what Jesus means when he says he is going to “him who sent me.” “[He] must return to the Father” (86). We understand, but the Jewish leaders do not.

John 11.49-50

But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.”

The chief priests and the Pharisees are brainstorming over what to do about Jesus. If they allow him to perform his signs, “everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation” (11.48). But Caiaphas speaks “about what is good for the nation. His point is that it is better for the Romans to punish Jesus for his teachings, than for all of Israel to suffer at the hands of the Romans” (86).

The irony, of course, is that the reader knows Jesus must die for the sins of the world. It is his mission. What may be even more ironic though is that it will be because of Jesus’ death that Israel will be judged and in 70 AD the temple in Jerusalem will be razed (Matt 21.33-46; 24.1-51). Who will the Temple be razed by? None other than the feared Romans themselves. This is just what Caiaphas and the Jewish leaders didn’t want to have happen.


This is but a taste of the irony in the Gospel of John. There is double-entendre, multiple layers of meaning, and mass confusion all over. Reading John is a short little book, but it’s very helpful on accomplishing its title and teaching the reader to read John.

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