The following review first appeared in Scripture Bulletin 29 (1999), pp. 102-3. It is reproduced here with permission.
Jey J. Kanagaraj, "Mysticism" in the Gospel of John: An Inquiry into its Background, JSNTSup, 158; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998; Pp. 356 Hardback ISBN 1 85075 865 4 • £55.00 / $85.00
Helen Orchard, Courting Betrayal: Jesus as Victim in the Gospel of John, JSNTSup, 161; Gender, Culture, Theory 5; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998; Pp. 293. Hardback ISBN 1 85075 892 1 • £50.00 / $85.00 Paperback ISBN 1 85075 884 0 • £16.95 / $24.50
Two of the most recent additions to the ever-expanding JSNT Supplement Series explore themes in the Gospel of John. Both are products of PhD research in British Universities (Durham and Sheffield respectively) and both are corrective works. Jey Kanagaraj's "Mysticism" in the Gospel of John studies the Gospel against a background of Palestinian Jewish mysticism, asking how prevalent "mystical" practice was in the first century and proceeding with an analysis of John in the light of such practice. This is an ambitious project, requiring competence in both early Jewish Mysticism and in scholarship on the Fourth Gospel, but Kanagaraj is equal to the task, writing in a gently persuasive tone and concluding that "the Gospel of John is a ‘mystical’ document, written, at least as one of its purposes, to address with the Gospel those who were preoccupied with Merkabah mystical practice and with cosmological speculations" (p. 317). In other words, John not only uses such traditions but also interacts with them critically -- verses like 3.13 ("No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man") have a polemical purpose. The book comes with an enthusiastic endorsement from the author’s mentor, James Dunn (pp. 9-10) and rightly so: this is an important contribution to Johannine scholarship.
Helen Orchard’s book, though also intending to change the way we read John, is a different kind of study. It doubles up as a contribution to the "Gender, Culture, Theory" series and focuses not purely on historical issues, but uses literary criticism, liberation theology and "victimology" to help explore what the author calls "the dynamics of violence within John’s Gospel", focusing on the portrayal of "Jesus as victim". Much of the book is made up of patient exegesis of the relevant sections within John and the conclusion offers a weighty challenge to the more traditional, triumphalistic reading of the Gospel in which a serene Jesus confidently takes his crown with a minimum of suffering.
Much of the book is persuasive and most of it makes the reader think. I found myself wondering, for example, how John’s first audience might have heard the narrative and how far familiarity with other gospels and other traditions might affect that hearing. Does the absence of a Synoptic-type Gethsemane unduly distort the way we read John? Does John construct his Gospel in critical dialogue with those who wrote before him? Further, where Orchard tends to talk about the Johannine community as "reflecting" onto Jesus its own problems and solutions, "creat[ing] its liberator in its own image" (p. 264), one wonders whether this goes far enough. Is it not also that the violent events related in the narrative are regarded by the Johannine community as having caused their own experience of violence and liberation? Does not the community see itself in direct continuity with those in the story-world it generates? This is a useful and challenging study and like all books that provoke one to think fresh thoughts, it is well worth the read.
University of Birmingham