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Robert Kysar, Voyages with John: Charting the Fourth Gospel. Baylor University Press, 2005.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price

Such a book is a great idea: a compendium of notable work, articles and papers, by a competent and productive scholar. I could use shelves of these! Kysar’s collection, with its retrospective introductions, reminds me of Stanley Fish’s wonderful collection of essays Is There a Text in this Class? In both one not only reads several essays of considerable interest in their own right, but also one experiences the DeManian dialectic of “blindness and insight”: the process by which certain insights are acquired at one point that would not have been possible after one had gained further knowledge later. Only one’s earlier, more limited, perspective allowed certain things to be seen at all. And in Voyages with John, we get to participate with Professor Kysar in his voyage of Johannine exploration. We follow him as he labors in the vineyard of historical criticism, then in source and redactional criticism, then in literary and narratological criticism, leading into postmodern readings of the Fourth Gospel. Fascinating! And one hopes Baylor will persuade other veteran scholars to undertake similar projects.

Reading Dr. Kysar’s attempts at Reader-Response criticism, I begin to suspect, as I do with most so-called New Testament narratology (unlike the real thing as practiced by Gerard Genette and Seymour Chatman), that there is a lot less here than meets the eye. Kysar’s attempt at putting himself in the place of a first-time (i.e., non-jaded) reader of John is unspectacular. The roadblocks and flashes of insight he predicates of the unspoiled reader do not seem much different from those that break upon the awareness of well-versed John-readers elsewhere in this book or in others. Who isn’t stuck wondering what “birth from above” might mean? The “watch me read this” gimmick gets old fast, which it wouldn’t if we were really learning anything from it. The whole discussion reminds me of the man who says, “I’m going over to the wall to flip the light switch. Now I’ve reached the switch. I’m turning it off. So now I’ve switched the light off. I just switched the light off.” This “method” produces only a one-step-back double focus on the reader as well as the text. But all we are seeing of the reader is what he makes of the text. It is not much different from what happens in a TV news interview in which the camera is focused most of the time on the interviewee but now and then switches for a second to provide a glimpse of the interviewer gravely nodding his head as he listens. The goal of narratology, as I understand it, is to break the spell of the text’s rhetoric, explaining how it seduces the reader. It is like explaining how a stage conjurer’s tricks work. The reader is henceforth forewarned and forearmed, as well as newly appreciative of the writer’s “magical” skills. It is all a sub-set of Derrida’s Deconstruction project, laying bear the illusory immediacy of rhetoric which poses as telepathy, a medium for the immediate communication of meaning. But I haven’t seen much of that in New Testament narratology, whose practitioners seem to think they have accomplished something by providing a Cliff’s Notes summary of this or that gospel.

In case it is not already evident, I, as a historical critic, find Kysar’s turn to Reader-Response criticism a bit disappointing. He has seemingly given up on finding answers and is content with framing questions. For instance, in the essay on the Bread of Life discourse (John 6), Dr. Kysar confesses himself surprised at the seemingly inconsistent enumeration of the interlocutors of Jesus in that passage. They appear at first to be sincere seekers, until, that is, Jesus accuses them of being a bunch of free-lunch welfare abusers. But then they also seem to be the horned “Jews” vilified everywhere else in the Gospel of John, people who never had any thought but to kill Jesus as soon as possible. But then they seem to morph into the disciples. And then we learn that, though this inner core/corps is all predestined by God to come to Jesus, one of them (Judas Iscariot) is in fact, as Elvis would say, “a devil in disguise.” What gives? Dr. Kysar then receives the text as something as an analogue (though he does not draw the parallel) to the Markan parable of the Sower/Soils: he takes the instability of the categories of Jesus’ interlocutors as an object lesson. The reader must not be too secure in his imagined faith: has God really drawn him to Jesus any more than he did the free-lunchers? Though the reader may consider himself a disciple, may he also be a devil, not yet disclosed? All right, that is an edifying, almost a homiletical, exercise.

But I still want to explain the wild careening between categories of interlocutors. And then other parallels come to mind. Don’t we have the same difficulty identifying Paul’s “opponents” in various letters? Who is he upset about, for instance, in Galatians? Gnostics? Judaizers? Gnostic Judaizers? Republicans? Vegans? Flat-taxers? It is so hard to frame a coherent police artist sketch of them that Van Manen and the Dutch Radicals were driven to realize there are no genuine historical entities in view, but that these (actually post-Pauline) texts are just firing scattershot at a whole syllabus of contemporary (late-first, early second-century) errors. The “historical scene of writing” in Paul’s day for which we had sought was an illusion. Likewise, it seems quite likely to me that John 6 does not care who we envision Jesus debating with. He is not trying for a coherent character portrait of Jesus’ interlocutors, whether as an historical report or as a bit of literary verisimilitude. He just has some business to get done: he wants to define certain Christological and sacramental stances, and in order to do so, he needs voices from the audience proposing errors so as to allow him to have Jesus refute them and clarify the truth (= the evangelist’s view). Some false ideas might fit naïve sympathizers best, while others would make more sense coming from a dyed-in-the-wool enemy. And so we hear them all.

This way of reading John 6 makes even more sense if we remember that it is probably John’s rewrite of the Caesarea Philippi Confession story. Mark wanted to refute a hand-full of inadequate Christologies currently held in that region: Jesus was John resurrected, the view of the ongoing Baptist sect; Jesus was Elijah returned. (Thomas adds other views popular in his milieu: Jesus was a Cynic philosopher, or an angel.) The beliefs of the well-wishing but misguided masses are contrasted with that of the inner circle of disciples, whose spokesman Peter is: “You are the Christ.” We see the same essentials in John 6: the crowds seem friendly, but they are wrong and cannot handle the truth. Some think Jesus is like one of the old prophets, Moses in particular. Jesus sets aside their belief and asks what the inner circle thinks: “What about you? Will you leave too?” And again Peter speaks for the rest: “You are the Holy One of God.” So again we have a mulligan stew of false views of Jesus, combated with one blast, and a contrast between them and the truth. And just as Matthew (which John was also reading) called one of the twelve a devil (“Get behind me, Satan!”) in the same story, so does John say Jesus has recruited one. And we also find the root of what so preoccupies Kysar with his synchronic reading of John 6: divine initiative giving rise to human faith. For, just as Matthew has Jesus congratulate Peter that he owes his correct Christology not to human opinion (“flesh and blood”) but to divine revelation, John 6 blesses the followers of Jesus as those who are all “taught by God” (John 6:45). So, obviously, I wish Dr. Kysar hadn’t abandoned historical criticism; the use of it still seems to elucidate puzzling texts in a way synchronic scrutiny does not.

I must report that the main thing I have gotten from this impressive book is a reinforcement of my suspicion that all of modern Johannine scholarship might be aptly summed up (to use again the old cliché) as a series of footnotes to Bultmann and C.H. Dodd. Of the annotators, some are original and have much enriched the discussion at some points. These, from my perspective, would include Raymond E. Brown (the orthodox alternative to Bultmann), Robert Fortna, and Wayne A. Meeks. Most of the rest of the Johannine guild (reminiscent of the missionary order of the Johannine Epistles?) seem to me to have busied themselves with dotting “i’s” and crossing “t’s”—or even with crossing “i’s” and dotting “t’s”! Here are dizzying vistas of concentric Mishna-Gemara-Talmud boxes functioning like square epicycles to form an exegetical Tower of Babel. (Sorry for the confused mess of metaphors!)

And amid all this work, so ably and exhaustively reviewed by Professor Kysar, his guiding star may be summed up in one sentence: “The truth doubtless lies somewhere in between” (pp. 140-141). I believe I detect here the conventional “let’s split the difference” methodology that lets almost everybody be at least partially right. The result is a more-or-less “safe” critical product. Sure, there is likely to be some truth in Bultmann’s Gnostic approach, but once we throw in a fistful of Brown’s Dead Sea Scrolls “reclaim John for Judaism” apologetic, we can bounce half the way back from Bultmann’s radicalism as if executing a historical-critical Bungee jump. This one is probably right in reducing John’s expectation to realized eschatology, but that one is probably right in restoring some kind of future expectation to the recipe. I get the same sort of uneasy feeling I do when I read Crossan: Jesus or John is being made a function of the variety of perspectives used by scholars to study him, as if they were a committee of Olympian gods each making their contribution to creating Pandora. Again, Dr. Kysar’s approach is reminiscent of the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar counting votes on their reading of a gospel passage and canonizing the result as the official position of the Seminar. And yet perhaps it is only this tendency that moves a scholar so to survey and catalogue such a wealth of material. Perhaps no one else would bother.

Throughout the book Dr. Kysar manifests an astonishing mastery of the scholarly debate. He distills it for us, and it is still a continent! He has recounted not only the unfolding of his own thinking but also that of the whole guild of Johannine scholars. At first he manages not to confuse the two histories, but in the end it begins to look as if all previous research has after all led gloriously up to his own Hegelian apex. In his turn to Postmodern interpretation of John (or anything else), Dr. Kysar has fallen in with the wrong crowd. He confesses to have been influenced by that Rasputin of retrenchment, Roman Catholic apologist Luke Timothy Johnson, who calls imaginative scholars to task for daring to “go beyond that which is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6). Like the similarly backward-looking John A.T. Robinson (or, come to think of it, today’s fundamentalist “Creation Science” quacks), Johnson and Kysar let us in on the big news that speculation (gasp!) is not fact. And that therefore, somehow, it is pointless. Kysar seems only now to have discovered that scholarly theories are heuristic devices and thought-experimental paradigms. And that is not good enough for him. What did he think he was doing for all those years? Late in the day he has learned that a purely objective or definitive reconstruction of past events is impossible. But it is clear from his own earlier essays in this book it was not so. He understood, as every single historian does, that all historical “conclusions” are provisional and tentative, not the stuff of dogma. But now it seems he welcomes permission to throw over the whole enterprise and to stick to a subjective Rorschach-blot reading of the text. How the mighty are fallen!

In his essay, “The Expulsion from the Synagogue: The Tale of a Theory” (a piece that might have fit well in an anthology called How My Mind Has Lapsed), Kysar submits the ludicrous conclusion that the so-called Benediction against Heretics, the aposynagogos shibboleth (no, I’m not speaking glossolalia) is a fiction, and that we therefore ought to stop interpreting John (and, one supposes, Matthew) as if there had been a late first-century expulsion of Christians from Jewish worship. Kysar wrings his hands for having made such a historical scenario central to his own theorizing for years, having followed the Pied Piper spell, as he now views it, of J. Louis Martyn and Raymond E. Brown. That takes some guts, I suppose. But his mea culpa is premature. He says that, first, the ancient evidence for a single, ecumenical Jewish ban on Christians is more ambiguous and more fragmentary than had been supposed. But this is like arguing that there was never a canonization of twenty-seven New Testament books because no single Ecumenical Council ever stipulated it. No, it was the work of Athanasius in his 367 Easter encyclical, plus ratification by three local North African synods. The restriction of usage was gradual after that, but the ultimate result was the same.

Second, Kysar argues, the depiction in John of some Jews who were not alienated from the Jewish authorities and yet followed Jesus (Lazarus, etc.) undermines the notion that the gospel is trying to retroject into Jesus’ time a later ban on Jesus-friendly Jews. Well, that is just absurd. It is precisely the inconsistency between such passages, which seem to preserve something of the Sitz-im-Leben Jesu, and others like John 9:22, where believers in Jesus have already been excommunicated (especially despite the fact that such a measure is still regarded as future in John 16:2), that led scholars to posit that a later crisis had been written back into the time of Jesus for literary-polemical purposes. This is the “hermeneutic of suspicion” of which Kysar now claims to make so much in fellowship with Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and others—as if ideological criticism were not simply a widening of the scope of Tendenz criticism.

Third, Kysar seems to feel that to posit an expulsion of Christians by Jews would be politically incorrect, and so it is dangerous to think that it happened. Perhaps there was more to it. No kidding. Who will not defend, even today, the decision of any group to expel, however regretfully, an element of its membership that is making an intolerable nuisance of itself, insisting that everyone adopt their pet distinctives? It is regrettable, but that doesn’t mean such schisms don’t or didn’t happen.

You can tell where Kysar’s own ideological bread is buttered when he condemns George Bush for branding Iraq-Iran-North Korea as the Axis of Evil. You mean they weren’t? But for Kysar, the “Other” appears automatically to be innocent. He speaks of how we “demonized” the 9/11 hijackers. Seems to me they did a pretty good job of that themselves! In fact, not to treat them as demons is to refuse to take seriously their “Otherness.” No, we tell ourselves over tea, they must be rational, human gents like us, somehow driven to their deeds by our own. One hopes Kysar’s ideological criticism will begin at home. 


Copyright©2009 by Robert M Price
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