New College Biblical Studies Seminar

I will be giving a paper titled "A New/Old Look at John 21: Towards A Literary-Historical Reading of John 21" on 1 Dec. 2007 at the University of Edinburgh.

It really is a general overview of my thesis, and I hope at that time to recieve a great deal of criticism on the general flow of my argument as well as a few preliminary conclusions I have reached concerning the function of the Beloved Disciple, high frequency of literary self-awareness, and the provocative shift in narrative time in John 21.

Below is a small section of the paper that has direct relevance to this blog:

The initially obscure, hyperbolic reference made to “books” in John 21:25 has a clear set of parallels that would have triggered a network of rhetorical echoes in early readings of the text. The use of βιβλία would have conjured up an image of vast libraries of scrolls, such as the one referenced in a story contemporary to John in which Ptolemy asked Demetrius of Phalerum to collect all of the books of the world (which came to around 500,000). Here the narrative of Jesus overwhelms all the official literature of his day, that is, anything that was worthy of being written on a scroll.

This sets the stage for reflecting on how this rich seam of rhetoric in John 21 relates to the Gospel as a whole... The rhetoric of John 21:25 attempts to class the Gospel of John with the set of literatures related to the word βιβλία. This certainly comports well with Burridge’s estimation of the genre of John as bios literature, as relevant literatures would have also been published in the format related to the term. And this is contra Hengel’s take the hyperbole: “As all earlier Christian biblical texts were circulated as codexes[sic], i.e. in book form and using nomina sacra, in my view we may presuppose that this would already be the case with the first edition. This is one of the fixed Christian writing practices which goes back to the first century.” Though he arrives at this conclusion based on the papyrological record, there is no lexicographical merit to Hengel’s argument. In fact, I argue that it is the widespread Christian use of the codex in this period that would have pointed the rhetoric, having been specifically crafted by means of βιβλία at this pre-transitional stage in the lexicography of book technology. Hengel is right to characterize the use of the codex as a “fixed Christian practice,” but there is no evidence to suggest that βιβλία would have referred to one this early, and in this context.

Due to its position in the composition history of the Gospel, this raises an interesting question regarding the relevance of the rhetoric itself. If this rhetoric comes from the hand of the author, then it is simple to read the verse as a self-conscious attestation of genre. However, if it comes from the hand of a later author, whether of the entire chapter or simply vv. 24-25, it is possible to understand the hyperbole as a misreading of 20:30-31 that results in a series of literary and generic implications not considered by the initial author of the Gospel. This would mean that 21:24-25 sets up a retrospective generic expectation for the Gospel not explicitly intended by its author.

Either way, John 21:25 leads one to read the Gospel somewhat differently than the first conclusion of John 20:30-31. [Though I tend towards the former.] And either way, reading this text in light of its rhetorical connections to book culture in antiquity grants us a clear point of access into the self-perception of Gospel writers at the end of the first century... I am sure the writer of John 21 was pleased with stumbling across such an efficient, double-edged rhetoric.


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