Breakdown of the Johannine text into scenes in light of its performative nature

Over the past few months I have been working on my thesis, in which I use performance criticism (and the paradigm shift it proposes) to demonstrate that the Gospel of John was composed in performance. One of the Important elements in its performative nature that captured my attention is the temporality of the Johannine text which create a natural devide in the action of the plot. Another is the use of entrance and exits, which is a classical elements in Greek plays to indicate the beginning or an end of a scene. This led me to determine that the medieval division of the Gospel of John was not true to the performative nature of the text. I therefore proposed in my thesis a new division. I am still working on some of the details bu here is a working of the theory as well as my proposed division of the goaspel in light of what I present.


Time and space play a significant role in the structure of plot unity as it pertains to a dramatic performance, such as is the case with the Fourth Gospel. This spatial temporal concept stems from the influence Aristotle has, through his Poetics, on the realm of performance. According to him, for an audience to be able to follow a dramatic performance, said performance must adhere to a unity of time and a unity of space. This does not signify that a performance must take place in a continuous time frame of 24hrs as is popular in some form of performance or in a singular location. Unity of time refers to a linear temporal sequence of events, which occurs in a single performance’s plot line as it moves in a continuous present (of the performance) to the climax of the narrative and its closure. We would agree with Jo-Ann Brandt’s assertion, that “the gospel’s author avails himself of temporal ellipses and narrative insertions, in long sections of the text plot time runs uninterrupted”[1], e.g. the festival of booths (7:10-10:21). The issue is the medieval chapter division, which scholars must deal with today. Though these chapters are engrained in tradition and history, they were not implemented with the knowledge or mindset of a performative oral/aural setting of a first century culture. Consequentially they are often misleading and can be unreliable. It is therefore necessary to provide a new division of the gospel that would be more aligned with a performative construct. This is where time will play a significant role in the division of the performance.

The Johannine author refers to time in the gospel in a variety of ways; the beginning of the gospel is an example of this where we see a succession of days: the next day (1:29), the next day (1:35), the next day (1:43), on the third day (2:1). Feasts are another way time is measured in John: Passover (2:13), feast of the Jews (5:1), Passover (6:4), Tens (7:2), Dedication (10:22), Passover (11:55). The reference to three Passovers also presents a temporal division of years as Thomas Brodie can corroborate: “These feasts, because they include three references to Passover, imply a flow of not only seasons but also years. Thus the text moves, imperceptibly almost, from a flow of days to a flow of feasts to a flow of years.”[2] These three years create a very good tripartite division of the Fourth Gospel; however this is just a beginning. The third year needs to be divided in two parts, for the passion narrative (13:1-20:31) is a distinct performative and literary element of the Fourth Gospel; this fact is agreed upon by many of the modern Johannine scholars: Bultmann, Schnakenburg, Brodie and Brown. Chapter 13 presents a temporal and literary shift in both the performance and literary aspects of the Gospel of John, which cannot be ignored. Furthermore, it is to be noted that the prologue (1:1-18) and epilogue (21:1-25) are also separate performative entities of the Johannine performance. The Gospel can therefore be divided into a prologue (1:1-18), four acts: Act 1 (1:19-2:22), Act 2 (2:23-6:71), Act 3 (7:1-12:50), Act 4 (13:1-20:31) and an epilogue (21:1-25).

Following this primary division of the Gospel into acts, it will be further divided into scenes by following the theatrical pattern of exits and entries. Entrances and exits are constitutive of performances, as Oliver Taplin (a specialist in the movements and action of Greek Tragedy) explains:

“It may seem odd to start with the moments when people are on the verge of absence, but a second glance sees that entrances and exits mark key junctures in a play—the beginnings and ends of acts, the engagement and disengagement of characters, the changes in the combination of the participants which alter the whole tone and direction of the drama. The timing, manner and direction of these comings and goings are fully in the control of the playwright, and his disposition of them may well signpost the way to our understanding of what he is about. The precise event, seen in its larger context, draws attention to the relationships on either side of it. Entries which come late in an act, exits which coincide with entries, arrival and departure in silence, the first entry and final exit of the play—all these are special junctures which reveal the alignment and re-alignment of interest. An entry provides the first impact of features of person, dress, stage-properties and so on; the manner and destination of an exit conjure up the future, the consequences of the scene we have just witnessed. All these potentialities depend on the context which is built up, especially by means of preparation, anticipation and prediction.”[3]

Entrances and exits are significant as the arrival of a character in the space of a scene can begin a dialogue; the entrance of a third character can end a dialogue, for conversations in performances seldom take place between more than two characters. The trial scene in John demonstrate this, when Pilate needs to talk to Jesus he enters the headquarters: “Then Pilate entered the headquarters” (18:33; 19:9-13), when he needs to speak to the Jews he moves outside: “So Pilate went out to them and said” (18:29-38; 19:4), Jesus and the Jews never speak in the same performative space of the trial scene. Finally the exit of all characters indicates the end of the action. Entrance and exits are significantly used by the author of John as Brandt explicates:  “While the evangelist uses the narrator to stitch dialogues together and is not always careful about how scenes end, he is attentive to the movement of people in and out of scenes, and that movement carries the action forward.”[4] Consequentially I would suggest that every entrance would mark the beginning of a new scene and exit the end of a scene.

In light of the above mentioned perspective of the temporal breakdown of the Johannine performance in to acts and the entrance and exits as indicators of scenes, we would present the following breakdown of the Gospel of John:

  • Prologue (1:1-18)
  • Act 1 (1:19-2:22)
    • Scene 1 (1:19-28)
    • Scene 2 (1:29-34)
    • Scene 3 (1:35-42)
    • Scene 4 (1:43-51)
    • Scene 5 (2:1-11)
    • Scene 6 (2:12-22)
  • Act 2 (2:23-6:71)
    • Scene 1 (2:23-3:21)
    • Scene 2 (3:22-3:36)
    • Scene 3 (4:1-42)
    • Scene 4 (4:43-54)
    • Scene 5 (5:1-15)
    • Scene 6 (5:16-47)
    • Scene 7 (6:1-21)
    • Scene 8 (6:22-71)
  • Act 3 (7:1-12:50)
    • Scene 1 (7:1-10)
    • Scene 2 (7:11-52)
    • Scene 3 (8:1-11)
    • Scene 4 (8:12-47)
    • Scene 5 (8:48-59)
    • Scene 6 (9:1-12)
    • Scene 7 ( 9:13-34)
    • Scene 8 (9:35-41)
    • Scene 9 (10:1-21)
    • Scene 10 (10:22-42)
    • Scene 11 (11:1-16)
    • Scene 12 (11:17-27)
    • Scene 13 (11:28-37)
    • Scene 14 (11:38-44)
    • Scene 15 (11:45-57)
    • Scene 16 (12:1-8)
    • Scene 17 (12:9-11)
    • Scene 18 (12:12-19)
    • Scene 19 (12:20-26)
    • Scene 20 (12:26-43)
    • Scene 21 (12:44-50)
  • Act 4 (13:1-20:31)
    • Scene 1 (13:1-30)
    • Scene 2 (13:31-16:26)
    • Scene 3 (17:1-26)
    • Scene 4 (18:1-14)
    • Scene 5 (18:15-18)
    • Scene 6 (18:19-24)
    • Scene 7 (18:25-27)
    • Scene 8 (18:28-38)
      • Sub-Scene 1 (18:28-32)
      • Sub-Scene 2 (18:33-38a)
    • Scene 9 (18:38b-40)
    • Scene 10 (19:1-16)
      • Sub-Scene 1(19:1-3)
      • Sub-Scene 2 (19:4-8)
      • Sub-Scene 3  (19:9-11)
      • Sub-Scene 4 (19:12-16)
    • Scene 11 (19:17-30)
    • Scene 12 (19:31-37)
    • Scene 13 (19:38-42)
    • Scene 14 (20:1-10)
    • Scene 15 (20:11-18)
    • Scene 16 (20:19-23)
    • Scene 17 (20:24-29)
    • Scene 18 (20:30-31)
  • Epilogue (21:1-25)
I still have much work to do on this yet I think it is a good beginning thus far, which is a better representation of the performative anture of the Fourth Gospel.

[1] Jo-Ann Brandt, “Dialogue and Drama: Elements of Greek Tragedy in the Fourth Gospel”, (Massachusetts: Hendrickson), 2004, 38.

[2] Thomas Brodie, “The Gospel According to John a Literary Abd Theological Commetary”, (New York: Oxford University Press 1993), 24

[3] Oliver Taplin, “Greek Tragedy in Action”, (London: Routledge, 2003), 31

[4] Jo-Ann Brandt, “Dialogue and Drama”, 27.


Greco-Roman Literacy in the First Century

I am currently working on my doctoral proposal and it seems that there are many out there who make the mistake of assuming that the Greco-Roman world was one of mass literacy, mass education, and that books were wide spread as they were produced and published in vast amounts. This point of view has severe consequences upon New Testament studies, an example of this would be the connection between the assumption of widespread literacy and the synoptic problem.

Many of the authors that I have been reading recently have commented the concept of literacy. As it pertains to the first century there seems to be an understanding that there is an independence between the ability to read and the ability to write. Pieter Botha explains that “the whole problem of understanding literacy is that activities such as reading/writing and speaking are inextricably part of a larger network of cultural activities, of symbolizing and symbolic effort.”

There were no global census’ that took place in the first century that can be used to give a numerical value to how many people could read and write in the first century Greco-Roman world. It is important to note that convenient writing materials were relatively expensive and were limited in supply (this is demonstrated by the used of potsherds as writing implements). This would therefore exclude the lower classes from being able to write. Moreover, eye care was not something that had yet been developed therefore, those with poor or no eyesight can also be eliminated, considering that more than 25% of our modern population is myopic and we can also suffer from 300 other ocular issues we can “assume” similar difficulties for our ancestors. Furthermore, unlike our modern era there were few incentives to learn to read: contracts were done orally; there are no insurance papers, traffic signs, and printed advertisements. Also we must take into consideration the vast amounts of slaves that were available as writers, readers, messengers, etc. If you left the big cities, most towns had a dedicated scribe who would read and write on behalf of the community. We can summarize that most inhabitants of the Greco-Roman world could get by without being able to read and/or write. We can conclude that most of the factors that would be necessary for widespread literacy are ascent, while elements that would hinder widespread literacy are present.

Education is one of the key elements that would lead to a literate society, nevertheless the cost of schooling is not something that every town or society could afford. Moreover public schooling did not take place in buildings but on the streets (either for the sake of publicity or due to lack of funding). Also it seems that find people to teach these classes was difficult as it is demonstrated by Pliny’s letter to Tacitus, within which he asks for help in appointing teachers  at Comum:

   I Give you Joy of your safe Arrival in Town, which to me was never so much wanted or desired. As for my self, I shall stay a few Days longer at Tusculanus, to compleat the Work that is in my Hands. For I am afraid, that if I break off this Application of mine, now towards the Close of the Affair, I shall find a Difficulty in taking it up again. In the mean Time, that I may let nothing fall by my too eager Haste, which I design to ask of you at present, I desire it here by a kind of preliminary Letter; but first you must be told the Occasion of my Request, and then the Subject of it.

   When I was last in my own Country, a Townsman’s Son, who had almost newly put on his Pretexta, came to pay his Respects to me, I ask’d him, Whether he pursu’d any Study? He reply’d, He did: Where? At Milan: Why not here? To this his Father (for he was with him, and indeed brought the boy himself to me) answer’d, Because we have no Masters here. Why have you none? For it would be very much the Interest of you Fathers (and it happen’d luckily, that several Persons were present) to have your Children instructed at Home. For where can then live more pleasantly than in their Native Country; or be more virtuously govern’d than under the Eye of their Parents, or, be kept at a lesser Expence than at Home? Therefore how small a Matter would it be to keep Masters in Pay, by a contributed Stock of Cash, and throw what you spend at present on your Houses, Travelling Charges, or buying of Goods abroad (as all are bought) in a superfluous Manner, into Salaries? And so I, who as yet have no Children, am ready to give a third Part of what you shall be pleas’d to contribute for the Benefit of our little Commonwealth, as for a Daughter, or a Parent. I should willingly engage the whole, if I did not apprehend, that my Benefaction might sometime be corrupted by the Ambition of those that might sollicit for it: as I observe it happens in a Variety of Places, where Masters are publickly supported. One Remedy might obviate this Fault, if the Right of Choice and Payment was vested only in the Parents; and they were put under a scrupulous Obligation of Judging aright, by the Necessity of the Contribution. For they who, perhaps, would be careless of another’s Money, would certainly be mindful of their own; and use their Endeavours, that none by a worthy Person shall receive it from me, when he is likewise to receive it from them at  the same Time. Therefore agree, concur in the Matter, and take the better Spirit from mine, who am desirous that my Part of the Collection should be far the largest. You can do no greater Justice to your Children, or Pleasure to your Country. Let those who are born here, be here educated; and accustom’d, from their earliest Infancy to love and be familiar with their Native Soil; and I wish you may contract with Masters so famous, that Learning and Study may be here courted by the Neighbouring Towns: And as your Children now are sent to other Places, so Foreigners may speedily flock hither. I thought it necessary to carry these Arguments very high, and, as it were, to the Fountain head, to give you the clearest Sense, how acceptable it wou’d be to me, if you would undertake what I enjoin you. Now I enjoin and implore you, from the Importance of the Thing, to look about for Masters, whom we may sollicit, among the great Number of studious Men that resort to you, in Admiration of your Genius; yet under this Condition, that I may not oblige myself by Promise to any of them. For I preserve every Thing free to the Parents. Let them judge; Let them chuse; I only require the Care and the Expence for my Part of the Management. Therefore, if you meet with any one that confides in his Wit and Abilities, let him repair hither on this Article, that he brings nothing from these Offers that is certain, but his own Confidence.

Teachers at the time were few and far between; the elite did not attend public schools but rather has tutors (Pliny indicates this in his writings). Therefore the public education system is not as developed as some would have perceived. Moreover, some advocate that literate slaves are a sign of mass education; however, the fact that literate slaves do not point to a literate society, but rather the opposite. The fact that there is a market for literate slaves shows that there is a disregard for literacy, it is a menial task.

We can therefore determine that literacy in the first century Greco-Roman world was rather limited. According to ancient authors and orators, literacy appears to be some kind of imitation of orality. Unlike our modern perception, in the first century orality shaped conditioned and moulded literacy. It was something that was very restrained and unprestigious. We must therefore remember that reading and writing were an oral and collective activity, not the silent and private one it is today. Communication in the first century is therefore connected to the physical presence of others. Writing did not have much use as it was not perceived as a superior technology in light of the difficulties related to reading and writing. We must remember that in a society that has little or no contact with writing, it is difficult to understand the purpose of writing.

However, how is writing used or what is its purpose?

In general, writing was limited to the imperial government. It was use as a means to “enslave the people” for communication to the senate and military was done in writing. Therefore the government had no intention of investing in basic literacy, for the illiteracy of the Greco-Roman people provided political stability and order. As Botha explains “In the Greco-Roman city-states, political power was closely linked to cultural hegemony, which came to depend in part on a direct knowledge of texts.”

As it pertains to the composition of letters, they served as a means of facilitating oral communication; for the concept of a letter was that of oral communication. Specifically, a letter was to create the experience of the physical presence of the author to the recipient. This concept is important to grasp and understand when reading the letters of Paul. Therefore, in the setting of the NT early Christian writings need to be seen and considered in their historical setting. Consequentially issues such as the synoptic problem need to be reformulated with this in mind. For as William Nelson states on the subject of NT texts “for works designed to be read aloud certain kinds of critical approach are therefore inappropriate. The attempt to discover unity and cohesion of plot in such compositions may lead only to the imposition of irrelevant structures and to distorted interpretation.”

It is therefore important to keep in mind when analyzing biblical texts that for the early Christian the texts were not important, nor were they the means by which Christianity spread; rather the spoken word and oral/aural modes were primordial to the early Christians and the growth of Christianity. Nevertheless we do have written texts, Botha submits a very interesting hypothesis with which a very much agree:

“The very smallness of the Christian movement probably contributed to the reason why some turned to writing. Paul used writing to be present where he could not be. Possibly some gospel storytellers tried to achieve access to classes of status by getting their stories into writing. Literacy usually emerges in conjunction with novel social enterprises. This suggests that Christian writing, in Greco-Roman culture, was used to preserve information connected to changing social enterprises or different socio-cultural activities.”

We must remember that literacy was not a standard, but something limited to a very small population. To reach the masses oral/aural means were necessary. This does not take away the value of the written text we now have in hands. It simply means that we must have this historical understand of the socio-cultural value of a text. I will continue to explicate the value of writing in my next post as I will explicate the role of writing in the first century as I further my readings on subject.

The Jews as Representatives of Alterity in the fourth Gospel:

One of my classes this semester is the construction of identity and alterity in a religious context, we have examined this from the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Legal and Buddhist perspective. For my term paper I will be examining the construction of the apostles in the Fourth Gospel as the makers of identity and the Jews as the markers of alterity. This evening I will be presenting  how the Jews are constructed as the markers for alterity, here to follow is my oral presentation.




            The author of the Fourth Gospel exhibits a dualistic world view, where everything that is explicated in his text is divided into polarized categories. This dualism is commonly expressed throughout the text through comparisons and contrasts:

John 3:6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.

John 8:23 You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world.

John 11:9-10 Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.

John 12:25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

This comparative language is not only limited to the teachings of Christ, but also extends to the fundamental construction of the text; specific to the intent of this work this comparative dualism is extended to the Johannine characters: e.g Nicodemus is set against the Samaritan woman, the disciples are set against the Jews. This comparison necessarily creates the duality of identity and alterity: the identity of those who believe and follow Jesus and the alterity of those who express disbelief and do not follow Jesus.

Ιουδαῖος in the Fourth Gospel Appearance

The term Ιουδαῖος, in the context of gospel literature, is specific to the Johannine text as it appears 70 times (14 times more than any other Gospel).

Appearance of Jew in the Gospels

What is futhermore of interest is the breakdown of the use of Ιουδαῖος in each chapter of the Fourth Gospel. In the first four chapter of the text Ιουδαῖος is used only ten times, as it is demosntrated by this bar chart:

Appearance of Jew in the chapters of the Fourth Gospel

Not only is Ιουδαῖος used in a limited fashion, but the Pharisees are only mentioned three times and the crowd (ὁ ὄχλος) does not appear at all. This limited use of Ιουδαῖος would seem to be in line with the dramatic construction of the Johannine plot:

Plot diagram of the Fourth Gospel

The first and last points represent the beginning and end of the plot, everything between those is the middle action. The two points in between represent important shifts in the plot: chapter 5 is the reversal of the plot, which begins the plots downward movement towards the rejection of Christ; chapter 12 is the completion of the reversal and recognition—begun at chapter 5— which ends the public ministry of Jesus.  This diagram is also a representation complex dramatic plot of the Fourth Gospel. If the Fourth Gospel had a simple plot (represented by the red line), the plot line would move uniformly downwards towards the death of Christ, similarly to the Synoptic texts have a simple historical line moving uniformly in a single direction. If this would be the case there would be an impact on the use and characterial construction of the Ιουδαῖος in the Fourth Gospel. However, as demonstrated by its magnitude, there is a break in the plot line which occurs in Chapter 5. The complex action of the Johannine plot is associated to Jesus’ change of fortune resulting from an incident of peripetia and anagnorisis. The break in the plot is cause by the peripetia in chapter 5 when Jesus is no longer acclaimed by all; rather the Jews begin to doubt him and plan his death. The reversal process is slow as it develops over many chapters and ends in the climax of the plot with the peripetia and anagnorisis of the crucifixion.

In the first four chapters there is almost no opposition to Jesus’ ministry, as a means of establishing a positive first impression of Jesus’ teachings. The response to the wedding at Cana is positive; Nicodemus, presents an ambivalent perspective yet seems to somewhat accept Jesus; and the Samaritan woman believes that Jesus is the messiah. All of this changes in chapter 5 as the diagram and chart show. In the fifth chapter Jesus is openly challenged by the Ιουδαῖος for the first time. This refusal to belief in Jesus and respond in a negative way to his signs, are key characterial traits of the Ιουδαῖος; for it is not until this chapter that their role has been determined. Verses 16 to 18 in this chapter present to the readers what to expect from the Ιουδαῖος throughout the Gospel: “Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the Sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.” (John 5:16-18). These traits (persecuting Jesus, seeking to kill Jesus, not having faith in him, not believing in his miracles, and misunderstanding him) are significant as it is the source of peripetia in the Johannine text and thus sets the complex plot in motion towards its dramatic ending. Once the plot moves on to the 6th chapter of the Fourth Gospel an interesting feature of the Ιουδαῖος and απόστολος is brought forth that must be understood prior to going on: that is their construction as corporate characters rather than single entities.

Jews as a corporate character/chorus:

As it pertains to the relationship between the disciples and the Jews, the Jews are the representation of alterity in the Fourth Gospel. Like the disciples, in this Gospel, the Jews are a corporate character, that John portrays in a specific way. Where the απόστολος represent individual characters under the banner of a single entity, Ιουδαῖος, according to Severino Pancaro represents five distinct groups : (1) the opponents of Jesus, (2) The ὁ ὄχλος, (3) The Jewish people as opposed to the gentiles, (4) the contemporaries of Jesus with their customs and practices, (5) the Judeans[1]. These five groups form the corporate character of Ιουδαῖος.

Corporate characters vary differently from individual ones, especially in a strong dramatic structure, as it is the case for the Johannine text. As Jo-Ann Brant explains:

“Focusing upon the Jews or the disciples as representatives of historical agents places emphasis upon the product of their deliberation—that is, their rejection of Jesus. Attending to the action that the Jews or the crowd or the disciples as a collective represent renders them more like a chorus than any particular historical association, and emphasis falls upon the dramatic relation between their collective voice and a gospel that pits traditional expectation against divine revelation.”

This is significatn for like a tragic chorus from greek plays, the Ιουδαῖος never become actors in the drama of the Fourth Gospel. Rather, the narrator describes the intentions of the Ιουδαῖος : (7:30, 44; 10:39)  the Jews want to arrest Jesus but no one lays hands on him or (8:59; 10:31) they take up rocks, but never throw them at Jesus. Moreover, in the dialogues, most of the lines of the corporate character take the form of a question, or a speech-act that will indicate ambivalence or misunderstanding (6:42, 52; 7:25-27, 35; 10:20-21). From a literary point of view, the Jews are both “the prisoners and the passionately engaged witnesses of the tragic experience.” Therefore, the character of the Ιουδαῖος, unlike Nicodemus or the Samaritan woman, do not invite the audience to choose between two positions, rather they provide the audience with an opportunity to observe the inner workings of the mind of the alterity, this makes clear that recognizing Jesus is no easy matter. John Gould explains that the “chorus brings the presence of a particular collective wider community experience, the sense of a social group, with its roots in a wider community which draws on the inherited stories, all the inherited gnomic wisdom of social memory and of oral tradition to “contextualize the tragedy.” Consequentially, if we apply what Gould states in the context of the Fourth Gospel rather than Greek tragedies, the nature of the Ιουδαῖος provides the context for the dramatic action. Jesus opposes the Ιουδαῖος by the virtue of his claims and actions, they therefore set him on a different plane from them by calling him a Samaritan, and also they turn to their Abrahamic tradition for precedent in their deliberation “he could be a prophet or a messiah”. Over and over again in John the Ιουδαῖος appeal to a collective experience and tradition to make sense of what they are witnessing, similarly to the chorus in Euripides’ Ion; however, in both cases the Ιουδαῖος and the chorus are misled by their tradition (2:20; 6:42; 7:27, 31; 12:34).

The conflicted nature of the Ιουδαῖος:

The corporation of the Ιουδαῖος shines through in chapter six to eight. These chapters bring to light a new dimension to the Ιουδαῖος as they demonstrate both belief and disbelief. This results from their corporate nature: the division itself seems to be part of the Ιουδαῖος identity, rather than simply being divided into a group that believes and one that does not. The belief of the Ιουδαῖος is implied through their relation with the ὁ ὄχλος who “represent the struggle of those who are open to believing, but neither the scripture nor the signs lead them to authentic faith”. The ὁ ὄχλος expresses their understanding in Jesus by responding to the feeding of the many: they called Jesus a prophet (6:14), they sought to make him king (6:15), they crossed the lake looking for him (6:24), they affirm Jesus’ ability to give bread (6:30-31). However, at verse 41 the terminology changes as the ὁ ὄχλος become the Ιουδαῖος. As of this verse disbelief is expressed towards the signs that Jesus has performed and what he has said. Though the Jews have expressed understanding, they do not express belief, when belief is needed to fully grasp the teaching of Jesus rather than reject what is being taught. This is what differentiates them from the disciples, though the disciples grumbled in chapter 4 in similar fashion to the Jews in chapter 6, the disciples express belief where the Jews do not. As Culpeper states: “through the Jews, John explores the heart and soul of unbelief.”

This understanding of the Alterity of the Jews is reinforced throughout the Gospel, due to their lack of belief and misunderstanding in light of the important issues of the Fourth Gospel. The issue with the Ιουδαῖος lack of belief is not an intellectual one as Thomas Broadie explains “if it were an intellectual problem, it could be met by explanation. […] what emerges then is that the rejection is based on grounds that are moral, on moral guilt. The nature of this guilt is fairly clear: while Jesus takes his orientation from God, those who reject him have an orientation based on human glory.” Brodie’s point is demonstrated throughout the Fourth Gospel as the Ιουδαῖος respond and interact negatively with Jesus: (1) they question the origins of Jesus and (2) his ultimate salvific relation to the Father. Their misunderstanding and feebleness of their position is brought forth by the conflicting charges and defence used by the Ιουδαῖος. They have a preformed idea based on their own knowledge of Jesus’ whence (6:42; 7:41,52; 9:29) and wither (7:35; 8:21-22). They misunderstand his teachings (6:41, 52; 8:27), the signs he performs (2:18; 6:30; 9:24; 11:46-47), and those who attest and witnesses to Christ (5:30-40; 9:25-27). They scour the Jewish scriptures for answers but find none, for they misunderstand the writings and do not obey them; rather these writings also condemn them. Their response to Jesus is founded upon this law and their understanding of it (though lacking); as Jesus points out time and time again it is their law (7:19; 8:17; 10:34; 15:25) not his. The Ιουδαῖος are characterized by Jesus as being from below (8:23), whereas he is from above, he is of this world they are not. Verse 25 and 26 characterizes them as being slow to understanding. Moreover the Ιουδαῖος are described as loving the darkness rather than the light (3:19-21); as well as the glory of man rather than the Father’s (5:41-44; 12:43); they love their own lives’ (12:25); and they are blind (9:40-41).

In her work Rhetoric and Reference in the Fourth Gospel, Margaret Davies goes on to describes the Ιουδαῖος as opponents to God “the ignorance and self-sufficiency of the human world, alienated from God, is , in this way, captured in the portrait of the ‘Jews’ and their leaders. These ‘Jews’ are one-dimensional characters, with a single trait, unbelief in Jesus because of their immorality.” Davies point is interesting, though  do not agree with her that the Ιουδαῖος are one-dimensional characters (I think we can see that they are rather complex), though I do agree that their main trait is that of unbelief, any other trait they have stems out from that singularity. Some might make an opposition to what Davies and I state, especially in modern reflexions on the Fourth Gospel, which seem to be more sympathetic toward the character of Ιουδαῖος due to the post-holocaust culture we live in. Those who are sympathetic towards the Ιουδαῖος argue that there are certain instances when the Ιουδαῖος do demonstrate belief in Jesus: specifically John 8:31-38. Most of these arguments are theological and not literary based as they quote and focus on verse 31, these critics seem to ignore the semantic relation of the Greek text as Thomas Brodie explicates very well in his literary and theological commentary on the Gospel of John:

“Jesus now speaks to “the Jews who had believed in him”—a puzzling reference since “the Jews” is normally used to refer to those who do not believe, and since the believers in question seem, in fact, not to believe. In the Greek phrasing, the word “Jews” comes last after “believed,” and so the implication seems to be that these believers are “Jews,” in other words, believers who do not really believe, or, more simply, superficial believers.”

Consequentially this series of verses are no different from the rest of the Gospel, for when taken into the context of chapter 8 as a whole we see once again two distinct groups those who believe and those who do not. Moreover, I believe verse 31-38 serve more of a historical function in this case, as the respondents seems to be caught in between the Christian and Jewish set of beliefs. In light of the time when the Fourth Gospel was composed, these verses can reflect the social situation post facto the life of Jesus where some Christians professed faith in Jesus, while still holding on to Jewish traditions. The use of απόστολος in verse 31 (which has not been used since the beginning of chapter 7) in conjunction with Ιουδαῖος, would seem to reinforce this social reflection as it does not occur anywhere else in the Fourth Gospel. This therefore, presents another aspect to the alterity of the Ιουδαῖος as superficial believers.


Thomas Brodie summarises very elegantly the overall significance of Ιουδαῖος as it is used in the Fourth Gospel:

““Jews” refers not only to believers in Judaism but to all those who, despite their commitment to a religious tradition, have in fact lost faith. They may seek to protect some ancient institution, such as the Sabbath, but they have forgotten what the Sabbath means—that is was once linked with the vitality of creation. Through their attachment to a limited heritage they develop a kind of spiritual paralysis, and become like the dissatisfied man by the poolside, unaware that they are living in sin.”

The Ιουδαῖος characterial traits are straight forward: the do not believe and oppose Jesus. However, the breakdown of their alterity demonstrates the deep complexity and impact that lays behind the characterial construction of the Ιουδαῖος. Though they do not partake directly in the action of the Fourth Gospel’s plot, they do play a significant role in its, magnitude, motion and development. Due to the lack of Satan and demons in this text the Ιουδαῖος are the source of evil in the text and thus the main source of antagonism in the plot of the Fourth Gospel. Consequentially, the Ιουδαῖος can be nothing else but an alterity.

[1] The word for “jews,” Ioudaioi, may also be translated “Judeans,” a term which has certain advantages: it omits any modern overtones of the word “Jews,” it helps partly to save modern Jews from the negativity of the gospel usage, it is closer in sound to the original Ioudaioi; it has an appropriate suggestion of provincialism; and like ioudaioi, it is closer to the name :Judas” (Ioudas). The confrontation, therefore, may be described as being between John and the assembled Judeans. Thomas Brodie (148) This would seem to make sense in light of chapter seven, where during the festival of Booths, Galilee is associated to life and Judea associated to death.

The Characterial Inversion of Nicodemus and the Samaritan Woman

Characterization is a vital literary device used by the author of the Fourth Gospel. Characters are a significant aspect of the gospel’s narrative, for they set the plot into motion, they guide the audience throughout the story; as well, they deliver the authorial message of the Johannine community. However, it is to be noted that the gospel author does not fully develop all characters that appear throughout the narrative. Many of the characters are used by the author purely as literary devices; hence, they possess single characteristics or traits, which the author uses to reach his literary goal. This is especially true for the minor characters, which appear in the gospel only long enough to fulfill the mandate given to them by the evangelist. These gospel characters teach something further, than simply what is written ad literam in the text. Minor characters, defined as literary devices, are used by the evangelist to their full extent in his gospel. These are often combined to a multiplicity of other literary techniques such as misunderstanding, irony, metaphors, comparison, et cetera. In the early chapters of the Fourth Gospel, the evangelist uses such a combination; more specifically, the combination of minor characters as literary devices and inverted parallelism. Henceforth, the author of John creates an inverted parallelism, within his characterization of Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, as a means to deliver to the readers, the theological message of the Johannine community.  This paper shall opt for a narrative critical approach in exploring how the author applies this literary device, with the characters of Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman. A step by step comparison of each scene will be undertaken as a means of portraying the inversions. In exploring these inversions, analogously through the eyes of the narrative method, light shall be shed on what is the desired authorial message of the Johannine community to be delivered to the gospel readers.

In the Fourth Gospel, there are no coincidences; everything done by the author is done with a purpose. There is a reason why Nicodemus is presented immediately after John 2:23-25; it is to show that he is one of those who believe in Christ on the basis of signs; consequentially, Christ will not entrust himself to him. Hence, it is not coincidental that the Samaritan woman is subsequent to Nicodemus, in terms of the next minor character to encounter Christ. As minor characters, they both fulfill a role in delivering an authorial message on a first level. Combined together as an inverted parallelism, they promulgate a secondary level of meaning which ramifies and enhances the first level authorial message. In highlighting the differences through comparison, the gospel message is made stronger and clearer. Prior to attaining this second level of meaning, one must come to the realisation that there is a link between both scenes, which is not only founded on the proximity of the scenes in the narration. This link is found in the use of polar temporal keys, in both of the passages. John chapter four verse six: “It was about noon” recalls chapter three verse two: “He came to Jesus at night”. Those who believe that these temporal keys are simply prosaic devices are severally misguided in their critical thought process. Everything stated by the evangelist is pregnant with meaning. The use of these temporal keys reflects the recurrent theme in the narrative of darkness and light. The use of darkness and light in the Gospel of John represents that of a conflict between the dark earthly plane of below, and the higher heavenly plane of light “The Higher plane is associated with truth and the lower with falsehood, deception, and error.” (Culpepper 167) In sum, the correspondence of these two scenes is found in the “night” and “noon”.  In his chapter on characters, Culpepper explains that the personification of minor characters, in the Fourth Gospel, will limit itself to a single characterial trait. (Culpepper 102) Proceeding from this concept, these two temporal keys serve also as the specific trait which will belong to the characters of Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman. Nicodemus is associated to “night”, for he will remain in the darkness of the mosaic faith, which is limited to the lower plane. The Samaritan woman is associated to “noon”, for she turns from the darkness of a Jacobian faith to the light of faith in Christ and the heavenly plane. The reader knows what Nicodemus has done and represents as a believer at this point; it is not to be emulated. The author uses a temporal key to illustrate a parallel link between Nicodemus and the Samaritan. The inversion hooks the reader’s attention; it demonstrates that he should be paying attention to the model portrayed by the Samaritan, for she is in the light, and is to be emulated.

What is it that the reader should be emulating? The evangelist tells the readers, through the inverted parallelism, that the answer is found through the Samaritan woman, not Nicodemus. It is to be noted that nothing is to be taken away from Nicodemus as a characterial literary device. As a character he does serve as an important means of setting the stage for the narrative plot of the gospel; furthermore, he guides the readers towards the message of the Johannine community found in this gospel. Nevertheless, there is a consequence of the inverted parallelism used by the author; Nicodemus becomes the modular scapegoat, which the readers should not emulate. Susan Hylen in Imperfect Believers provides an answer to what the Samaritan teaches and Nicodemus cannot: “her character can teach the reader something further about what it means to be a disciple. She witnesses, not to perfect faith in Jesus, but to her experience of him.” (Hylen 55)

Though Nicodemus and the Samaritan encounter Jesus at different time, they do both enter into metaphorical discussion with him; Nicodemus about being born anothen or from above, and the Samaritan about hydor zon, which is living water. There is an immense difference between both characters that is to be noted; Nicodemus is a man and a leader of the Jews, his visit is one that would “entail” to bring honour to Christ. The Samaritan is a woman and obviously a Samaritan; Jesus, as a Jew, never should have contact with a Samaritan, even less one who is a woman. Where Nicodemus bring prestige to Christ, she brings shame. Nicodemus has a title; the Samaritan woman is not even given a name in the text. Yet it is the Samaritan woman who can undertake the metaphorical conversation with Christ; unlike Nicodemus it is her faith which bears fruit. This is not surprising, for it is a recurrent theme found in the Synoptic as well as the Pauline tradition “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matt 20:16) This parallel polarization is also found in the way each character enters into conversation with Christ. The language used by the author is significant, for Nicodemus it is written “He came to Jesus at night and said” (Jn 3:2); Nicodemus is the one that sets into motion the action of the scene. For the Samaritan woman the author writes “When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her” (Jn 4:7); the protagonist, Jesus, in this instance sets up the action for the scene, not the minor character. The way this is done is truly important and it will explain why it is that the Samaritan woman understands and Nicodemus does not. The temporal keys associated each character to either “light” or “dark”; hence, they are either related with the earthly plane or the heavenly plane. When Nicodemus comes and begins the conversation with Christ, it is the earthly plane attempting to understand the heavenly realm. This will result in failure, as the finite cannot comprehend the infinite; Nicodemus is not born anothen so he cannot understand or see the kingdom of God. By another token, Jesus begins the conversation with the Samaritan; it is the heavenly plane entering into conversation to teach the earthly realm. How do we come to the terms “understand” and “teach”? Nicodemus as a Jewish leader and a man is entitled to being well versed in scripture and Mosaic Law. He does not approach Christ to learn from him; Nicodemus says “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” (Jn 3:2) Nicodemus and the Jews have already learned who Christ is, their goal is now to try and understand what manner of prophet from God Jesus is. For Nicodemus and the Jews, they believe that their cup is full and have nothing to learn. Hence, this is why Nicodemus cannot comprehend what Christ says to him about being born anothen; he comes to Christ in the darkness of the knowledge he already possesses. Hence as Christ says to Nicodemus “Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.” (Jn 3:11) In his quest of understanding, Nicodemus remains at a first level of conversation and does not grasp the metaphorical second level, in which Christ is attempting to teach.  Contrary to Nicodemus, the Samaritan is a woman, is not entitled to any education and would not possess the knowledge Nicodemus would have. The tables having been turned, it is Jesus who approaches her, to which she responds “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (Jn 4:9)  Her surprise reaction mirrors the division between the Jews and Samaritans; her knowledge about Christ is limited to knowing that he is a Jew and that he should not be talking to her. Unlike Nicodemus she does not respond with foreknowledge, she responds with curiosity and understanding. Her cup is empty when it comes to Christ, and it is ready to be filled with his heavenly knowledge. Her mind and her heart are open to the light of Christ; in this situation she can learn from Jesus. Consequentially, the Samaritan woman is the one that understands that Jesus is speaking in metaphors and responds to him in a just fashion.

The inverted parallelism applies itself also to the role of the minor characters as literary devices; as well as how they are used as a means, for the author, to interact and deliver a message to the readers. The character of Nicodemus responds to Christ with misunderstanding as one walking with a foot in the heavenly and earthly plane; he therefore takes on the characterial role of the fool. Whereas the Samaritan woman responds to Christ with understanding, she responds to Christ in similar metaphorical language; she therefore steps into a master-student relationship, and ends up preaching of Christ to her people. This is determined by the question each character asks Christ following his first statement in the scene.

In response to Christ stating, in verse three, that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born anothen, Nicodemus says “‘How can someone be born when they are old?’ Nicodemus asked. ‘Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!’” (Jn 3:4) Nicodemus completely misunderstood the significance of what Christ said metaphorically. Nicodemus understanding is limited to a first level; hence he can only grasp the first of the two meaning of anothen “born again”, whereas Christ meant “born from above”. Nicodemus’ liminal understanding of Christ is what leads him to misunderstand Jesus’ message. Yet, this misunderstanding is important, for the readers, through Jesus’ response know what was meant by the use of anothen. Also, this misunderstanding is what sets the plot of the narrative in motion, as this misunderstanding brings to light something new which “cannot be contained or comprehended by any simple or pre-existent categories.” (O’Day 56) This irony shows that Nicodemus is limited to the pre-existent categories of understanding, id est “birth” in the physiological sense. This adds a touch of irony to the text, thought the laugher aimed at Nicodemus is not a humorous one. Rather it illustrates a gain of knowledge for the reader who has realised that an important theme of the Gospel has been brought to light: the Son of Man theology. Nicodemus guides the reader to this concept, which will follow them throughout the gospel narrative.

The Samaritan responds differently then Nicodemus does to Christ’s first statement. Christ explains in verse ten that if the woman knew about the gift of God, and who she was talking to, she would have asked for hydor zon (living water) and received it. The Samaritan responds to Christ by answering “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water?” (Jn 4:11) The Samaritan woman’s response to Christ, with a question, does not signify misunderstanding like Nicodemus; she is linked to light, not darkness.  Therefore, she responds with understanding, as she knows Christ is speaking in metaphorical terms; hence, she answers him with a metaphor of her own, remaining on the same plane as Christ. Granted hydor zon does not have a double meaning like anothen. However, Christ expected understanding from a man like Nicodemus “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?” (Jn 3:10), this understanding of anothen as born from above is found in Old Testament scriptures: Isaiah 26:19; 32:15-17, Ezekiel 37:12-14. There is an ironic twist to Nicodemus’ misunderstanding of Old Testament scripture; for the Samaritan Woman come to the realisation that Christ is speaking in metaphors through scriptural realisation. As Susan Hylen explains “The Samaritan woman would have been likely to understand “living water” as a conventional metaphor. Samaritans were familiar with the stories of God’s provision of water to the Israelites in the desert (Exod. 15:22-27, 12:1-7).” (Hylen 44) It is used in scriptural texts as a metaphor signifying God sustaining his people as found in Psalm 78:15-16, 105:4i. In the Old Testament this metaphor represents God’s gift of life, wisdom and abundance as is portrayed in Proverbs 13:14, 18:4; Isaiah 35:6-7, 41:17-18, 55: 1-2, 58:11; as well as Jeremiah 2:13, 17:7-8, 13.

There is also a significant importance, in the comparison of the spatial keys, presented in chapter three and four, which the evangelist uses to bring important information to the attention of the readers. The location of the scene, in chapter four, further reinforces the significance of hydor zon. It is a metaphorical linked to the Old Testament “So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well.” (Jn 4:5-6)  It recalls Genesis thirty-three verses eighteen to twenty, where Jacob purchased a plot of land and then gave it to Joseph in chapter forty-eight verse twenty-two. In verse twelve the Samaritan woman’s language compares Christ to Jacob “Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself” (Jn 4:12). Her association, of Christ and Jacob, represents understanding of what is being said between her and Christ. This is illustrated by the Samaritan not asking whether Christ can or cannot provide this spiritual water; she knows he can. What she is questioning is what kind of spiritual water is he offering her; is the water the Jesus can provide her and her people, greater than the spiritual water offered to the Samaritans by Jacob. This questioning portrays openness to what Christ is offering her. This openness is not seen in chapter three with Nicodemus. The scene with Nicodemus has no spatial marker, which leaves the reader in darkness, like Nicodemus. This lack of a spatial marker signifies two things: first the temporal marker is more important than a temporal one and the reader’s attention should be on “dark” instead of a location. Second the reader’s full attention is to be pointed at Nicodemus, the conversation between him and Christ, and his response to what Jesus is attempting to tell him. Chapter three is founded on misunderstanding and the role of Nicodemus as a fool type character; in this situation a spatial marker would have no significant literary function in promulgating the evangelist’s message. On the other hand, chapter four is founded on understanding; therefore, a spatial marker can serve as a literary means of reinforcing pre-mentioned knowledge or relations found in the text, as it is explained a priori for chapter four.

Where Nicodemus failed to make a connection with scripture, the Samaritan woman prevailed. Consequentially, she makes the connection that Christ, in offering “living water”, is not speaking of the physical water of the well, but of the spiritual water as a source of nourishment for herself, and her community. Having picked up the conventional metaphorical key, she responds to Christ appropriately responding in metaphorical terms as illustrated in verse eleven. Like Nicodemus there are elements like to attributes of the physical world as she states Christ has no bucket to get the water from a deep well. The difference is that she seeks to understand, where Nicodemus does not; ergo, she concludes her comparative statement that the water she would give to Jesus needs a physical bucket. Consequentially since she and Christ both do not have buckets, what is the source of the water he is offering her “Where can you get this living water?” (Jn 4:11) Her metaphorical response asks Christ of his origins and his authority to give such a spiritual source. Her reply, in its creativeness, shows that she understand the water metaphor as she can manipulate it to formulate her answer. This is an interesting literary device that is opposed to the one the author uses as a response to Nicodemus misunderstanding. In misunderstanding Nicodemus opens up the floor, for Christ to go on and explain the same statement once again through reinforcement, limiting what the reader will learn.  The Samaritan woman’s challenge adds content to what Jesus is saying; it also permits Christ to further develop what he means, permitting the reader to get a further understanding of “living water”. For the evangelist shows how a believer must act in response to Christ, in similar fashion to the Samaritan woman, “Remarkably, she is willing to abandon her ancestor’s well in favour of ‘the gift of God.’” (Hylen 47) The living water offered by Christ will render unnecessary the ancestral spiritual nourishment of Jacob’s well, a believer must abandon his ties to the earthly realm, for that of the Kingdom of God. As a result of her actions, the Samaritan woman’s scene is longer, as Christ wishes to continue his teaching with her. Furthermore, she does not simply fade to the backdrop of the narrative, she receives a proper exit. The Samaritan leaves her water jug behind, and acts out what was metaphorically said between her and Christ: she will no longer be spiritually thirsty. On the other hand Nicodemus fades from the narrative, when his role as a literary device is complete, for Christ sees him as a “lost cause”. Christ knows Nicodemus will not go and preach to his people like the Samaritan woman; hence, the conversation turns into a monologue where Christ will speak directly to the readers without Nicodemus as an intermediary.

The final inverted parallelism that will be explored is that of Nicodemus believing because of signs done by Christ, and the Samaritan woman coming to recognize Jesus as a prophet on her own. Prior to chapter three, the evangelist sets the boundaries, which will limit Nicodemus as a character:  “Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people.” (Jn 2:23-24) After setting the limits of the narratives world-view, the author presents Nicodemus in John 3:1-2 with the titles “man” and “Pharisee” and that his beliefs are based on “signs” performed by Jesus. This link, between chapter two and chapter three, signifies that Nicodemus will not be able to come and understand what Christ will tell him, as he is limited to the lower plane of “man”, as he is described by the evangelist. He is one that Jesus would not entrust himself to, since Nicodemus cannot come to the realisation of who Christ is on his own, he will not be able to rise above the darkness. In turn, it is often understood that the Samaritan woman is limited herself. She is limited by being: a woman and a sinner, as Christ brought to the surface her multiple marriages in verses 16-18; or so it seems. The language of the text does not portray, in any way, that the Samaritan woman or Christ do not understand her multiple marriages as causing her to be in a state of sin. This notion, of the woman being limited to sin, is one created by misinterpretation of many readers, for “the interpreter’s task is not to reiterate their culture’s stereotypes about women but to assess the language of the text.” (Hylen 48) Therefore, if Christ’s bringing to light, of the Samaritan’s, multiple marriages is not to be taken verbatim, what does it signify? The multiple marriages provide an opportunity for Jesus to exhibit is prophetic knowledge. Jesus knows something about the Samaritan without ever being told; this explains why the matter is not concerned with the woman’s sinfulness. Jesus uses this prophetic insight as a means to lead the Samaritan woman from misunderstanding, like Nicodemus, to understanding of who Christ truly is. This prophetic knowledge, illustrated by Christ, recalls John 2:23-25. Furthermore, this prophetic knowledge, like with Nicodemus, is significant. The difference is that, this knowledge does not limit the woman; instead it brings her to the realisation that Christ is a prophet “‘sir,’ the woman said, ‘I can see that you are a prophet.’” (Jn 4:19) This realization is what will lead to the greatest difference between both characters, which is to be noted by the readers: the Samaritan woman will testify of Christ, Nicodemus will not. In chapter seven, the author gives an opportunity for Nicodemus to testify of Christ; yet, the ambivalence in his characterial archetype prevents him from doing so. Nicodemus remain attached to his trait of darkness throughout the narrative. Consequentially, he cannot come to the recognition of who Christ truly is. Without this recognition, he cannot preach to his people, in chapter seven, and convert them. Instead, he gets ridiculed, fades to the backdrop of the narrative, and leaves the Jews in their darkness as well. The Samaritan woman on the other hand, was brought to the light of knowledge and the recognition of who Christ is. She, therefore, testifies of him to her people and converts them:

“Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I ever did.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers. They said to the woman, ‘We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.’” (Jn 4:39-42)


The Samaritan illustrates how testimony is an important aspect of discipleship; this is one of the significant messages of the Fourth Gospel. There is a literary “good cop, bad cop” relation that is formed in the inverted parallelism between the Samaritan Woman and Nicodemus. The Samaritan woman leads many of her people to believe in Jesus on the basis of her testimony; this illustrates that she understands and has received the hydor zon from Christ, and that she is to be emulated by the gospel readers. Nicodemus, on the other hand, cannot testify to his people as he himself cannot grasp the concept of being born anothen. He remains in the dark throughout the gospel narrative; he is not to be emulated by the readers, rather he serves as an example of what a disciple of Christ should not do: remain in the darkness.

In sum, the author of John successfully creates an inverted parallelism within his gospel narrative. This is achieved in the differing means of characterizing Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman; who are successively used as a means to deliver, to the readers, the theological message of the Johannine community.  The inversion serves as a means to teach the readers something further about the authorial message found in the narrative. The inversion does not show how one attain perfect faith, rather is demonstrates how one comes to experience Christ. We can come to Christ to with earthly limitations and try to understand him, or we can come with an empty cup and be filled with his teachings. The inversion is used in the spatial and temporal aspects of the narrative, as a way to enhance and explain the conflict between light and dark in the gospel. The comparison between understanding and misunderstanding brings to light the significant role of “testifying” in ones role as a disciple; as well as, the significances of this role in determining one as a true disciple of Christ. All in all, the combination of inverted parallelism, and Nicodemus and the Samaritan as characterial literary devices, permit the evangelist to enhance, and deliver multiple message of the Johannine community to the readers. Without this combination the readers, would simply remain at the liminal level of learning one achieves by observing the characters outside of their combined significance.



Conway, C. M. “Speaking through Ambiguity : Minor Characters in the Fourth Gospel.” Biblical Interpretation 10, no. 3 (2002): 324-341. New Testament Abstracts, EBSCOhost (accessed November 30, 2010).

Culpepper, A.R. “Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel.”  Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 198

Hylen, S.E. “Imperfect Believers.”  Louisville Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009

Munro, W. “The Pharisee and the Samaritan in John : Polar or Parallel?.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 57, no. 4 (1995): 710-728. New Testament Abstracts, EBSCOhost (accessed November 30, 2010).

O’Day, G. R. “New Birth as a New People : Spirituality and Community in the Fourth Gospel.” Word & World 8, no. 1 (1988): 53-61. New Testament Abstracts, EBSCOhost (accessed November 30, 2010).

Reynolds, E. E. “The Role of Misunderstanding in the Fourth Gospel.” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 9, no. 1 (1998): 150-159. New Testament Abstracts, EBSCOhost (accessed November 30, 2010).


Nicodemus: the Shakespearian Fool in the Fourth Gospel

I was going through some of my files on my PC and I stumbled across this gem that I wrote 2 years back, though I am not entirely thorough (in comparison to my present capabilities) I had a blast rereading this and do not want to change it for the moment…. Maybe I will rework it at a later date, but for now enjoy.

The Fourth Gospel presents an interesting challenge from a literary perspective, for a scholar. It has a narration which has been developed, by the evangelist, to an extent not generally presented in biblical texts. The gospel’s theological message is delivered to the readers through their active participation in its reading and textual interpretation. The comprehension and reception of the Johannine Gospel message hinges on the relationship between the implied author, narrator and reader. The implied author uses a wide variety of tools to captivate and bring the reader in the story alongside the narrator, to open up his eyes to the Gospel message. As Culpepper writes in Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, “In reading the gospel, one is drawn into a literary world created by the author from materials drawn from life and history as well as imagination and reflection. The narrator speaks retrospectively, telling a story that is a sublime blend of historical tradition and faith.” (Culpepper 232) The implied author’s main literary weapons of choice used to accomplish this are: characterization, misunderstanding, irony, plot, narrative point of view, narrator, and author-reader relation. These are the methods which are most frequently approached and studied by literary scholars of the Fourth Gospel. These methods shall be presented in this paper as a means to an end, in tandem with a more modern literary approach; for “the unity of this ‘spiritual gospel’ is more evident in the subtle elements of its narrative structure than in the obvious ones.” (Culpepper 234) One of these subtle elements is the use of the minor character Nicodemus, by the gospel author, as a literary device, utilised in a similar fashion to the fool in Shakespearian plays, as a means of advancing the ramifications of the theological and Christological Johannine message presented in the Fourth Gospel. The use of the fool, as a literary device, has been of common use in literature since the classical period, when “Diogenes embodied this role and Aristophanes mastered the rhetoric employed by the fool in his comedies.” (McDonough 107) For the purpose of this paper, however, the Shakespearian model of the fool shall be use as a means to draw a parallel between the literary device and models that have been fully observed in literary studies for centuries. As a model, the Shakespearian fool still holds to the tradition of the fool used during the classical period. Additionally, it will permit us to link it to widely known works of Shakespeare, where the role of the fool has been thoroughly developed and used to its full extent. In the first part of the paper, the role of the fool in its use as a literary device shall be fully explored. Subsequently, how Shakespeare uses the fool as subtle means to present his criticism and satirical message shall be exemplified. Following this, the second part of this paper will illustrate how the gospel author uses the character of Nicodemus, in a similar fashion to how Shakespeare uses the fool in his plays, to woo the reader into a higher plain of observance permitting the evangelist to convey the theological significance of the gospel. This observance shall be demonstrated in the use of the narrative exegetical method.

1. The Figure of the Fool

The fool emerged as a provocative figure within the literature of the Renaissance. The use of the fool in literature goes as far back as the Classic period, where it was principally used as a comedic means to disrupt the audience’s focus and bring to their attention something of importance. This comedic aspect is to be taken with a grain of salt, as it will often cloud the understanding of those who hear the word “fool”. The fool’s role is not simply comedic and lacking in intellectual value. Timothy McDonough explains in The Fool’s pedagogy: Jesting for Liminal Learning, that there is a “seriousness” to the fool’s rhetoric, specifically pertaining to its effectiveness in achieving pedagogical ends. (McDonough 107) The fool, as a literary device, is a significant tool to the author using him, as he can take on many differing roles. The fool, therefore, can be used in a manifold of techniques, texts, writing styles; as illustrated in his ability to cross literary periods.  This character and device reached the pinnacle of its literary significance during the Renaissance, as a consequence of the changes occurring. The realm of science was becoming the main source of knowledge, offering the answers to the everyday questions of the masses. This inevitably challenged the theological and ecclesial dominion of providing the answers found in scientific knowledge. The fool “offered a form of communication that encouraged an unbinding of thought and negotiations between incompatible possibilities.”(McDonough 107) He permits a relation to be formed between reader and author, which sanctions intellectual communication between the conflicting world-views, through rhetorical and sometime comedic methods. The fool was widely used by the great authors of the Renaissance: Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Erasmus, etc. Nevertheless, the fool never truly triumphed until the Elizabethan period, when this characterial literary device fell into the hands of a certain William Shakespeare.

2. The Fool in Shakespearian Writing

Shakespeare turned the fool into a truly diverse literary device; not only using it to its full potential, but stretching its boundaries. This is part of the reason why this paper shall compare the use of Nicodemus to the use of the fool by Shakespeare. The other reason is that Shakespeare, as a writer, was deeply influenced by Ovid; Francis Meres in 1598 stated that “the sweet witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare” (De Grazia p.91) Ovid was a popular literary model during the Elizabethan period; The model is not only found in Shakespearean literature, but is also found in Spencer and Marlowe’s literary works. . Shakespeare’s writing can be characterised as being tainted with ovidian elements; ergo, this “ovidian” characterisation is also impregnated upon the Shakespearian fool. As a consequence of this characterisation of Shakespearian writing, the fool is brought back to its roots found in the Greco-Roman and Hellenistic period through Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This is the same period when the composition of the Fourth Gospel by the Johannine community was occurring. One may ask: how does this relate to the Gospel?  The answer would be intertextuality, where intertexuality would be defined as the allusive relation between literary texts. Culpepper in The Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, affirms this “The evangelist, it seems, has moulded his material in forms based upon current Hellenistic models of philosophical and religious teachings, instead of following the forms, of Jewish origin, represented in the Synoptic Gospels.” (Culpepper 152) Intertextuality would be of significance in this situation, because the authors of the Gospels did not compose in a vacuum. The literary modes, both oral and written, of the period when the gospel of John was being composed were Hellenistic and Greco-Roman.

Publius Ovidus Naso, or Ovid, was one of the most prolific and significant Greco-Roman authors; he was present everywhere in Greco-Roman literature. It is conceivable, and somewhat inevitable, that the author of the Fourth Gospel would be influenced by the literature circulating during festivals and public events at the time they were writing. K.M. Coleman in his essay, Fatal Charades: Roman Executions Staged as Mythological Enactments, expounds the historical fact that during the Roman period punishment of criminals were done in a formal and public fashion. Criminals about to be put to death would role-play dramatic scenes from popular Hellenistic and Greco-Roman literature. In his essay he explains that one of the dramatic charades put on display by the Romans was that of the story Apuleius or the “Golden Ass” from Ovid’s Metamorphoses; more specifically the scenes from book four of the Golden Ass. This Book contains a character mould from which the fool stems from. One may not that Ovid Is a Greco-Roman author, not a Hellenistic one. Nevertheless, the literary roots of Greco-Roman literature are deeply engraved in Hellenistic literature. In Ovid and Genre: Evolution of an Elegist, Steven Harrison explains the multiple Hellenistic components of the Metamorphoses. When taking a closer look at the opening poem of the first book of Metamorphoses he states: “The brevity of the proem (exactly matching that of Apollonius’ Argonautica) and the metamorphic subject-matter and catalogue-frame of the poem also look to Hellenistic traditions, as does its overall concern with themes such as aetiology and paradoxography.” (Harrison 87) Aetiology (the study of causation) and paradoxography (pertaining to unexplainable natural phenomena’s) are significant Hellenistic literary elements which are linked to the Greek poet Callimachus. These literary elements are found in Ovidian literature. Moreover, Fritz Graf in his essay Myth in Ovid backs up what Harrison states as he writes “In Greece, the learned Hellenistic poets collected relevant myths and shaped them into collections that became master-texts for the Romans”. (Graf 116)  One of these poets is Callimachus, who was aforementioned by Harrison. Graf explains that Callimachus’ work Aitia contains aetiological myths, rituals and cult-images which stem from either Greek myth or history. It is furthermore illustrated in his essay that Ovid takes up the Callimachean model when composing. Both Harrison and Graf agree that Ovid uses Hellenistic models in his writings

It is very unlikely that the author of the Fourth Gospel, whether he read Latin or not, would have been able to avoid being influenced by ovidian literary structures and devices as they were presented publicly to all at the execution of criminals. Furthermore, Ovid’s literary techniques and concepts are founded upon Hellenistic traditions and models, and as Culpepper stated the Gospels authors used Hellenistic. Consequentially, Ovid and the author of the Johannine Gospel are using literary techniques based on similar models and traditions.Therefore, having gone full circle, Ovid’s influence on Shakespeare, in his use of the fool as a characterial literary device, can be used as a comparative source to how the Johannine author used Nicodemus similarly as a literary device. Inevitably, the Shakespearean fool can be deemed perpendicular to the character of Nicodemus, there is a rational literary link between both characters.

For the purpose of this essay, it is important to come to the realization that Shakespeare uses the fool in many different ways. The fool’s roles will differ depending on which kind of play, or literary piece, Shakespeare is writing, as well as how he wishes to capture the reader’s attention. Now this versatility was not seen in the ovidian fool. This is a consequential effect of literary evolution, which Shakespeare is blessed to have had at the tip of his quill. Nicodemus, as a literary device used by the evangelist, is modeled on the Hellenistic fool. Shakespeare deconstructed the ovidian fool and partitioned him into differing categories, permitting the fool to take on multiple personae. This explains why Nicodemus will take on characteristics of many Shakespearian fools.

To truly understand how the author of the Fourth Gospel used Nicodemus as a literary device, similarly to the Shakespearian fool, one must know, first and foremost, the role of the fool as a characterial literary device. Secondly, the differing classes of Shakespearian fools must be understood, as well as their multiple literary usages. Hence, the significant question one must ask: what is the literary role of the fool? According to Timothy McDonough, as a literary device “The fool teaches not a specific knowledge but rather a way to position oneself in inquiry, in the mutual pursuit of goods and truths, which often must occur across difference.” (McDonough 109) The fool is used as a means to effectively countermand presuppositions, id est the fool promotes a change in the readers assumptions. The fool accomplishes this by permitting the author to disrupt the logic pertaining to a specific world-view. Roger Ellis, in his work The Fool in Shakespeare: A Study in Alienation, explains that the fool is a character committed to a world-view, which is in conflict with that of society; it is therefore not able to find acceptance with others of that central world-view. As a result of this powerlessness, the fool will “assume” the mask of folly, as a means to protect himself from the world. Consequentially, he cannot be openly involved in the action, as he would therefore be faced the rejection of the world. Hence, the fool cannot act: “he can only be acted upon.” (Ellis 249) Furthermore, the strength of the fool is found in his ability to expose, to the readers, the underlying belief structure of the central world-view, as well as its structural symbolism. This ability is what permits the fool to turn on its head the master-principles of the world-view at hand in the literary work. For the author of any work using the fool as a literary device:

“The fool is not teaching an ideological critique that assumes a right or wrong, but a position which dances between possibilities revealing the fluidity of the structures and the multiplicity of possible positions one can assume within the arena of ideological contest, inquiry and debate.” (McDonough 111)

The fool is there to play the role of a devil’s advocate, to a certain extent; destabilizing the world-view, permitting a protagonist to act upon the character of the fool and sanction a specific authorial message to be passed on to the reader. Shakespeare achieves this through the differing classes of Shakespearian fools and their literary usages. The first Shakespearian model of the fool is the natural fool found in Shakespearean comedies. These fools are rather simple, they relate in no way to the greater role of the fool. They are shallow characters, constructed simply to raise laughter; they have no significant relation to the action. It is through their comedic actions or their clumsy sentence structure and sayings that they disrupt the common world-view. This type of fool is found in the Character of Mercutio in Romeo and Juliette, as well as Gratiano in The Merchant of Venice. Their use is limited, to a quick disruption of the flow of a text as a means of grasping the attention of the reader for a moment. This brings the reader back to the narrator or author so that a quick message may be delivered. These fools rather “whistle trouble away than face it.” (Ellis 255) They cannot be used for any significant change of thought or ideological pondering; the comedic fool must give way to the world-view he is combating in the end. Nevertheless, what they can do, through their comedic actions, is set the stage for the plot of the literary work. This can be accomplished through many techniques, yet the most common is that of misunderstanding.

The second Shakespearian model of the fool is the fool used by Shakespeare in his mature comedies; these fools “crystallize for us the existence of different worlds” (Ellis 255). The Shakespearean fools which best fit these archetypes are: Bottom from A Midsummer Night Dream, Touchstone and Jaques from As You Like It, and Feste from Twelfth Night. These types of fools are used by Shakespeare in his comedies containing dualistic worlds such as A Midsummer Night Dream; this play presents the human world, as well as the world of magic. These fools are faced with a dilemma, as they have a foot in both worlds and are consequently at home in neither. They are consequentially able to participate in various levels of action, which in turn permits the reader to comprehend both world-views. The author can use this to his advantage, as the reader is offered a god-like perspective on the action. The author also uses the fool’s linguistics, puns, sentence structures, as well as double entendres to elevate the reader even more. The reader is thus seated next to the narrator, and granted privileged access to information not available or understood by the fool. The duality of the world-view is symbolic; the fool allows the reader to perceive that the dualistic symbolism is of greater significance than the character himself. The reader’s attention is therefore pointed towards the author’s message.

The third Shakespearian model is that of the fools found in the problem plays and tragedies such as King Lear. The fool in these types of plays can be defined as “the figure who sees truly what the world is like and feels his powerlessness to change it.” (Ellis 252) The fool, in this case, has an awareness of being aloof with the rest of the world, similarly to the fool of the mature comedies. The world of the fool in these plays is highly structured, policy and law have supremacy.  As a consequence of this structure, the fool has to play by the rules and cannot step out of his role; he must play the fool. Being limited by the structure of the world in which he finds himself, the fool cannot fully share with other characters nor can he respond to them “he is the perfect embodiment of the ambiguous relationship of the outsider to a world at odds with him.” (Ellis 266) Consequentially, this type of fool will ultimately fail as he is unable to free himself from the binding force of the world; he is unable to see greater meaning and rise above the structural prison he is in. The limits placed upon the fool, by the author, help the readers to see beyond the structure of the character’s world, to see the choices that can be made, and the consequence of the right or the wrong selection. Hence, as illustrated, the Shakespearian fool is a very versatile literary device, considering that the fool is generally a minor character, who is static, and does not present much growth. The fool can be used in many differing genres and situations. Moreover, the fool can take on varying roles depending on how, and for what the author chooses to use him. Furthermore, the fool does not help advance the plot per se; yet, he helps the author grab the reader’s attention, permitting passing of judgment or knowledge. This guides the reader in the direction chosen by the author.  It is in this fashion that Nicodemus is similar to the Shakespearian fool.

3. Nicodemus, the fool of the Fourth Gospel

3.1 John 3

The author of the Fourth Gospel forms Nicodemus into a static character that does not evolve a great deal throughout the Gospel. Nicodemus is used, by the author, to advance the plot and narration of the Fourth Gospel. He focuses the reader’s attention towards the greater theological, and Christological Johannine message, attempting to be delivered by the evangelist. This is further permitted by the fact that this gospel is not a missionary work, in the same way as the synoptic gospels; but a message aimed at members of the Johannine community.  As Andreas Dettwiller explains: “Historiquement, on en a conclu, à juste titre, que le quatrième évangile n’est pas un écrit qui aurait pour but de convaincre les non-chrétiens de la pertinence de la foi chrétienne, mais un écrit adressé à une communauté chrétienne.” (Dettwiller 377) This fact forces the reader to take a step back and view the narrative from above, permitting the emplacement of a reflective mindset.

What is of interest is the complicated relation between the Johannine authorial voice and the text, as well as the reader and the text.  Having elaborated on the role and use of the fool a priori, a comparison of the literary use of Nicodemus to the fool can be fulfilled. The characterial construction of Nicodemus, by the evangelist, is very similar to how the fool is constructed, in the sense that there is no complete character development. Nicodemus appears in three short increments of the Gospel. Now this is significant to note, for it does not point Nicodemus in the direction of being a true “character”; rather Nicodemus, through this, is portrayed as a characterial literary device. His character construct is being used to influence the reader in the theological direction deemed necessary by the evangelist. The way this is accomplished by Nicodemus is truly mirrored by the fool’s methodology. He is “in effect the prism which breaks up the pure light of Jesus’ remote epiphany into colors the reader can see.” (Culpepper 104) The key to understanding Nicodemus, like the fool, is to recognize that he is being studied from the outside. One does not try to understand why he is a fool, or his emotional relation to this role; rather one must understand that he is a character who is a representation of a different world-view.

In the Fourth Gospel, the author speaks of dualism which is presented to the reader in spatial terms. Nicodemus is committed to a world-view at odds with that of the society, in the sense that he has a foot within each world-views of the narrative: earthly and heavenly. Prior to even presenting Nicodemus, the author sets up the stage for his arrival in chapter 2:23-25. It is in these verses that the limits of the world-view, by which Nicodemus shall be bound, are set: “when he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.” (Jn 2:23-24) Following this passage, the author presents Nicodemus to the reader: he is a “man”, a “Pharisee” and he believes on the basis of the “signs” performed by Christ (John 3:1-2). Nicodemus never really had a chance to be anything other than a fool, for as soon as the limits are set, he is presented, and he does not fit the mould of the world-view. The limits placed upon Nicodemus are exemplified in his coming at night. This is significant, for the author reminds the reader of this fact when Nicodemus reappears for the third time in Chapter 19. This is not used by the author as a time marker; Ellis, in his paper, illustrates that the fool lacks security. For this reason, the reference of night signifies that Nicodemus cannot come to Christ openly, as he is limited by the mould of his title as a Pharisee, a Jewish leader. Being a Pharisee, he is at polar ends with that of Christ; he is forced to come and see him and night seeking heavenly answers which he should have as a religious leader. This polarity is presented in the Fourth Gospel as a conflict between light and darkness. One can understand this as being a conflict of knowledge “The higher plane is associated with truth and the lower with falsehood, deception, and error.” (Culpepper 167) Nicodemus is attempting to rise from the darkness of the Mosaic faith and into the light of Christ. Nevertheless, Nicodemus is presented as one who treads between two worlds, and is part of none as he never takes that leap of faith forward. Yet he has enough belief that he cannot turn completely back to the night, as he has caught a glimpse of the light. This immediate example of one that does not fit the world-view mould was purposefully done by the author so that the reader knows that this character is to be observed. As readers, we are made to recognize that Nicodemus will be powerless in gaining the acceptance of the heavenly Christ or the earthly Jews. From a literary standpoint, therefore, the author forces Nicodemus to take on the mask of the fool as a means to protect himself from the world. Thus, as a character, he cannot be openly involved, for he would be opening himself to the rejection of both worlds. Hence, as was stated above, the fool can only be acted upon. He is acted upon by the author, reader and protagonists. Through Nicodemus, the author forces the reader to take the step and do what Nicodemus cannot: pick a side.

Prior to picking a side, more information is needed, Nicodemus guides us through it. Therefore, this duality of having a foot in both worlds is amplified, by the author, through the use of misunderstanding; a recurrent theme of the Fourth Gospel. Dettwiler explains a significant effect of the use of misunderstanding, “la mise à distance créée par le malentendu empêche le lecteur de s’identifier trop vite et trop naïvement aux interlocuteurs de Jésus.” (Dettwiller 377) Through the use of misunderstanding, we are again invited to view the text from above, so that we may think, place judgment and make our own decision as we are faced with the problems and questions the author lays before us. This doubles the author’s intention of elevating the reader from the text, reaffirming its importance to understanding the gospel’s message. This device is especially effective when used with a fool type character, for the fool does not teach a specific knowledge, instead he presents a way to be positioned when questioning the status quo. The fool’s positioning is an effective means to countermand presuppositions as it promotes change in the reader’s assumptions in coming to the text. Misunderstanding is by the author, in John chapter three, when Nicodemus miscomprehend Christ’s use of the Greek word “anôthen” in verse seven. Jesus says to Nicodemus that he must be born “anôthen” to see the kingdom of God. The author chose to use this world for its dualistic meaning, as it can either signify “born from above” or “born again”. The author meant “born from above”, whereas Nicodemus understood it as meaning “born again”. This is due to the fact that “the double meaning of “anôthen” underscores that the newness of which Jesus speaks cannot be contained or comprehended by any simple or pre-existent categories.” (O’Day 56) It is not surprising then that, in verse four, we find a touch of Johannine humour in Nicodemus’ response to Jesus’ statement “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” (Jn 3:4) Nicodemus being limited by the pre-existent categories of his time can only understand one meaning of “anôthen” in the physiological sense. His knowledge of this leads him to disbelief at the possibility of what Jesus has just said. This ironic twist is a mirror image to Puck, one of the fool in A Midsummer Night Dream, whose misunderstanding is at the source of the entire play’s plot. Puck, in this play, fulfills the role of the classic fool who disrupts the world-view through his comedic actions. Concerning this comedic role of the fool as a literary technique, Timothy McDonough explains:

“When we laugh at the jests of the fool, we are not laughing at the absurdity of his statement, but at our recognition that within his discourse he is doing something we thought undoable, questioning the unquestionable. [..] We laugh due to an emergent sense of power that comes with the recognition of our capacity to transgress boundaries of meaning-making we did not know were delimiting alterior possibilities.” (McDonough 115)

This is exactly what the character of Nicodemus does for the reader; he brings to light the questions we would have looked over, due to their impossibilities. He empowers the readers through this realisation, as we cross the boundaries of our liminal conceptions, and gain the Christological knowledge that the author desired us to gain. Nicodemus’ response, through a similar characterial technique used by Shakespeare with Puck, brings forth one of the significant aspects of Johannine Christology and theology. It echoes the Son of Man Christology present throughout the Gospel, the conflict between the world above and the world below, as well as presents how one attains salvation in this theology: by being born “anôthen”. Culpepper’s work on misunderstanding reaffirms this as he writes that, “a further effect of the misunderstanding is to remove any doubt or misperception about key point in John’s theology.” (Culpepper 164) Nicodemus’ misunderstanding of what Christ was attempting to say, as it disrupts the logic of the Jewish world-view, limited to being born from the womb. This brings to light, for the readers of this gospel, the Christological means of being born through the Spirit. With four simple verses, the evangelist creates the entire plot surrounding the Son of Man Christology. Through Nicodemus, the writer puts us on the Christological path of the entire Gospel, guided by the intent of the Johannine community.

The use of misunderstanding by the author, as well as the ironic questioning of Nicodemus, allows the character of Christ to respond to Nicodemus’ misinterpretation of what Jesus wished to state originally. Hence verses five to eight are dedicated to explain to Nicodemus what Jesus meant; it also serves as a chance for Jesus to speak to the readers. Knowing what is at odds through the use of misunderstanding, the reader has already picked a side with the limited information provided in the first four verses. Hence, Jesus’ explanation serves as a means, for the author, to affirm or countermand the decision made by the reader. The author must verify that the reader is on the path intended by the Johannine community. Roger Ellis explains that “with Shakespeare’s fools we are at once in a world where moral certainties are being questioned: where the questioner proves fool by his question”. (Ellis 251) Similarly, with the evangelist’s fool, we are in a world where theological certainties are being questioned. Ergo, it is not surprising that following Jesus’ explanation Nicodemus once again questions him in verse nine “How can this be?” (John 3:9), restating his prior questioning. He proves himself a fool by his question, and Jesus does not hesitate to point it out:

“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” (Jn 3:10-12)

Through Nicodemus, Christ reveals the inconsistencies between the earthly and heavenly realms, as well as challenges the social basis of the Pharisee’s role as the religious governing power (it is in moments like these in the texts, that one can truly hear the echo of the Johannine community stem out, as their conflict with the pharisaic movement surfaces in their writing). Culpepper affirms this “The scene culminates in a critical judgment on Nicodemus. Any expectation the reader may have had of the authority and enlightenment of a Jewish leader are overturned. Nicodemus is a teacher of Israel, but he cannot understand even earthly things.” (Culpepper 135) Though Nicodemus is the fool, once again he helps the author to direct the readers in the direction he wishes them to go. The power of the fool is truly remarkable, as the reader is being guided without truly realising what is happening. As the text goes on, one cannot help but to side with Christ and turn from Nicodemus.

Like the fools of Shakespeare’s plays, Nicodemus articulates the principles of the divided world in which he finds himself. The author does not accomplish this by victimizing him; rather, he articulates the principles, by expressing the tensions of the world-view through the characterization of Nicodemus. Ellis explains that “Shakespeare usually represents his fools as the conscience of a divided world because his drama is, in the end, symbolic, and its characters assume greater significance than they have themselves.” (Ellis 260) This is a very ovidian approach to a narration [Could you elaborate a bit?]. In a similar fashion, the evangelist does the same. Nicodemus is represented as the conscience of a divided world; the Gospel is not historical, but truly a symbolic text. This is especially true for the Fourth Gospel. Nicodemus is a symbol; the evangelist uses the symbolic significance of Nicodemus as a means to tie in the various elements of the Gospel, as a literary work, together:

“The Johannine symbols unite the concrete with the abstract, everyday life with John’s distinctive theology. […] The symbols are in this regard bridges by which the reader may cross in some elusive sense into the reality and mystery, the life, which they represent.” (Culpepper 201)

What Culpeper states here is parallel to what the fool accomplishes in Shakespearian plays. One must simply turn to A Midsummer Night Dream to see that Puck and Bottom, the fools of the play, are used as literary devices; they bridge the gap, for the reader, between the mortal world and the magical realm. The consequentiality of Nicodemus being a symbol is that he is a static character. He has no significant part in the narrative or in forwarding the action (though he does forward the plot as explained above) as he “appears in only seventeen verses, three scenes, and speaks only sixty-three words, yet he is both individual and representative, a foil and a character with conflicting inclinations with which the reader can identify.” (Culpepper 135) Hence, being static, and used minimally in the gospel narrative, the literary role of a minor character comes into play. Minor characters force the readers to pause and reflect on what is being said by these players. Thus, as a reader, one must wonder: what is the significance of this limited use of the character; why has the author used him this way in the first place. It is through this thought process that the evangelist successfully uses the foolish archetype, of a minor character, to make the reader reflect on where Nicodemus is taking them. It is at this point of the narrative, at verse eleven, where the narration, between the fool and protagonist, shifts from a conversation to a monologue of Christ speaking to the reader. This shift is caused by a sudden change of the personal markers, as Christ begins to use the royal “we”, therefore taking on the voice of the Johannine community. As both Culpepper and Ellis state, once the role of the fool is fulfilled, he fades away from the narrative. (Culpepper 135; Ellis 260)

3.2. John 7:50

Nicodemus’ “fade away” is short lived, as the author calls upon him again in chapter seven, when the Pharisees are attempting to condemn Jesus without a lawful trial. The author reintroduces him, by alluding to prior events of chapter three: “Nicodemus, who had gone to him before” (Jn 7:50). Nicodemus’ appearance in this scene is once again marked by the tensions imposed by the strict structure of the world-views. This duality has morphed a bit since chapter three, as it is now torn between his origins as a Pharisee and his current status as one who had gone to Christ. This duality is the source of the fool’s success, as a literary device, in this scene. Once again, the fool steps in to create a division in the Pharisees ranks; Nicodemus disrupts once more the standard world-view. Once again it is shown that Nicodemus has no control over his status as a fool. Through the consequentiality of his dualistic title and stance Nicodemus, prior to uttering even a single syllable in the scene, causes havoc in the benchmark of the world-view with the use of irony:

The officers then came to the chief priests and Pharisees, who said to them, “Why did you not bring him?” The officers answered, “No one ever spoke like this man!” The Pharisees answered them, “Have you also been deceived? Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him?  (Jn 7:45-48)

Nicodemus was presented as “a leader of the Pharisees” in chapter three; one can obviously see the ironic twist, in what the Pharisees say to the officers, as one among them has already begun to believe Christ, through signs. The division is clear; this continues the unequivocal division that Nicodemus is suffering, as he is still walking a path hell-bent between both world-views. He continues to put the worlds at odds with one another, as he reinforces this ironic twist by rebuking the Pharisees “does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” (Jn 7:51). This ironic twist of faith, takes away all authority the Pharisees would potentially have had in the minds of the readers. This illustrates, unambiguously, that the religious leaders are not informed with what is taking place within their midst. Furthermore, Nicodemus’ words reveal the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, who moments prior, reprimanded the crowd for their ignorance of Talmudic law: “But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed” (Jn 7:49). The evangelist permits Nicodemus to fulfill his role gloriously as a fool in this short scene, the Jews are shown to be mistaken, as one of their members does believe in Christ. The author divides the status quo and conquers the minds of the readers. Yet, this is a problem, for now there is an ambivalent feeling towards Nicodemus. Where in chapter three he did not understand Christ, in chapter seven, now he comes to his defence portraying some form of understanding. Moreover, the Pharisees label him a Galilean, which is indistinguishable from calling one a believer for the Johannine evangelist and community. The author completely confuses the reader by creating this uncertainty. As Colleen M. Conway explains in her paper on the ambiguity of Johannine characters “Again and again, the characters are constructed in ways that pull the reader in multiple directions, frustrating attempts to discern a clearly drawn trait.” (Conway 330) The ambivalence leads the reader to question what is going on during the scene; he is attempting to find the answers to his questions concerning Nicodemus. Of course none are found, as he remains a character shrouded in mystery until the end, as intended by the evangelist. Consequentially, in our efforts to find an answer concerning Nicodemus, we discover what the author was attempting to tell us “seek and you will find” (Matt 7:7).

This characterization of Nicodemus is similar to the havoc causing fools such as Feste and Puck. These are the types of fool who create a kind of narrative Armageddon for the status quo. They wreak havoc upon the action in a “physical” or “psychological” fashion. Nicodemus of course does not cause havoc by releasing a herd of horses in the temple. He creates a silent Armageddon for the Pharisees who do not even know they have been turned into a simple jest to amuse and direct the mind of the readers. From this point on, the Pharisees will have no credit in the eyes of the reader, making the choice of the heavenly plane instead of the earthly one that is much simpler. This scene is one purely related to the use of the characterial literary device of the fool. As chapter seven concludes, the inconclusiveness surrounding Nicodemus still stands, the reputation of the Pharisees as religious leaders and authorities is tarnished. To the joy of the author, the reader’s should clearly know by now that their answers shall be found in the heavenly realm. Once again at the end of this scene, Nicodemus fades to the background of the narrative, disappearing once he accomplishes his duty in teaching “not a specific knowledge but rather a way to position oneself in inquiry, in the mutual pursuit of goods and truths, which often must occur across difference.” (McDonough 109)

3.3. John 19

Chapter nineteen is the final appearance of Nicodemus. In this chapter he does not say a single word; hence we can only judge him by his actions. The author presents Nicodemus in verse thirty-nine in the same way as in chapter three, recalling that he came by “night”; therefore, he reminds the readers that Nicodemus is still at odds with the world-views, and still has a foot in both worlds. Nicodemus regresses to his original state; in chapter seven, he had openly defended Jesus but was mocked by his counterparts. Therefore, he must revert to his beginning and come to Christ by the darkness of night to protect him from the mocking of society. It is simpler for the fool to turn away from trouble rather than face it. Nicodemus in this sense is similar to what Roger Ellis writes concerning the fool who:  “is in the thick of things. He is forced to a recognition of the double standard, his own and the world’s and to the knowledge that where he sees himself as a self, the rest of the world will mark his caperings solely as an excuse for laughter. This becomes his great agony. It reflects his failure to act.” (Ellis 247) Nicodemus attempts to act meaningfully; yet, his position as delimited by the author, does not permit him to do so. As an outsider of the heavenly realm, he is deprived of the possibility of acting positively. Nicodemus must give way to the reality, which he is attempting to cast aside; he is not a true disciple of Christ. He is still shrouded in mystery; a true disciple must affirm his faith in Christ, not shy away from it and remain hidden in the shadows, a disciple comes to the light of Christ. He is confused, as he comes by night; yet, he brings a quantity of spices parallel to that used for the burial of a king: “Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.” (John 19:39) an amount fit for the king of the Jews. He shows recognition of who Christ is, all the while entirely misunderstands the dualistic nature of Christ. Though Christ is king, his kingdom is not of the earthly realm; Jesus will be resurrected, hence he does not need the embalming spices. This imagery produced by the misunderstanding is truly comedic. The readers can picture Nicodemus with a smile on his face, believing he understood Christ, yet missing the mark by just a little; all he was missing was that leap of faith demanded by the Johannine community. This indecisive duality is truly a problem of the fool, as “the fool deals in probables; he cannot be expected to know about miracles. He thinks he knows everything: but about the possibilities of redemption in the material order, like all the fools, he is uninstructed.” (Ellis 261) Roger Ellis, in this explanation, encompasses the exact problem pertaining to Nicodemus, yet this comes from his study of the fool in Shakespearian literature. The fool and Nicodemus can both only grasp the earthly realm; they cannot fathom or be expected to comprehend the miraculous things of the heavenly world above. Nicodemus attains some form of understanding by coming to Christ; yet, like the fool, he does not truly understand. He still comes to Christ by night, as well as embalms one who has preached the resurrection to him, and stated that he shall be the victor over death. Yet, his role is fulfilled; the reader knows that the religious Jewish leadership’s reputation has been tarnished. The reader understands that the path chosen by Nicodemus would be leading them astray, away from God; for like the Pharisees he is lost and wrong in his judgments. Furthermore, he is repeating his mistakes of the past, which the readers can key into due to the referential consequence of the reiteration of “night”, echoing chapter three. Though Nicodemus does not speak, the reader can see in his actions that Nicodemus is committing the same mistakes as he has in past chapters; he has remained static, hence, unchanged in his understanding and faith. Nicodemus never had a chance; as a fool, he is limited by the structure of the world in which he finds himself. Furthermore, he perfectly embodies the odd relationship of the outsider confronted by a world utterly opposed to him. Ultimately, Nicodemus had no choice but to fail, as he was unable to free himself from the binding force of his “Judaism”, as was lain out in the structural formation of the narrative world by the evangelist. Nevertheless, though he is limited, he permits the reader to see beyond the confining structure of the Judaic world-view. Through Nicodemus, the reader is permitted to see the choices and the consequences at hand, permitting one to make an enlightened choice; the choice that Nicodemus cannot make: to chose the heavenly realm, the kingdom of Christ and to be born from above.


This paper had originally set out to demonstrate that the use of Nicodemus, by the evangelist, as a characterial literary device, is similar to how the fool is used in Shakespearian plays, as a means of advancing the ramifications of the theological and Christological Johannine message presented in the Fourth Gospel. Nicodemus has shown similarities with the Shakespearian fools. Through the comparison of Nicodemus and the fool as we have studied in this work, common features between both characters have emerged. Roger Ellis and Timothy McDonough have explained in their works that: for the fool to have the prominence he is given, it is necessary for there to be two world-views opposed to one another. (Ellis 268) The author creates the limits of the world-views in place, in the gospel, and these limits are imposed upon Nicodemus; of course these limits will reflect the beliefs of the Johannine community. One world-view is held by the minority: Nicodemus, while the majority is held by the Johannine community. Consequentially the majority, id est the readers, will deem the minority to be fools; in the case of Nicodemus, he is a fool for he is following a course of action which is inconsistent with the world-view, as he has a foot in both worlds: heavenly and earthly. In combination with the character of the fool, the evangelist uses irony and misunderstanding. This combination has the function to point out to the readers that there is a choice to be made, due to the causality of a dualistic world-view. Like the Shakespearian fools, Nicodemus’ understanding is used by the author to further the plot of the narrative. As was illustrated, Nicodemus furthers the narration’s plot, by misunderstanding the dualistic significance of the use of “anôthen”. Limited by his world view he can only understand its first significance, pertaining to physiology, of being born again. On the other hand, the reader, through Nicodemus’ characterial use by the author, is permitted to comprehend the words second significance of being born from above. This misunderstanding brings to light the Son of Man Christology, which is being promoted by the evangelist of the Johannine community throughout the Fourth Gospel.

Nicodemus, in the Fourth Gospel, does not teach a specific knowledge; instead, he teaches how one should position oneself in inquiry. He helps the author guide the readers along, placing them in situations where they must question their prior beliefs, in accordance to the world-views. Nicodemus, therefore, successfully countermands the presuppositions that were at hand and changes the reader’s assumptions. The strength of Nicodemus, as a literary device, is found in his ability to expose the underlying belief system and expose its structural symbolism. He turns on its head the master-principles of the world-views of the narrative, revealing the multiplicity of positions one can assume in response to the world-views. Nicodemus, being the literary device fulfilling the role of devil’s advocate, permits Jesus to act on him, allowing the evangelist the opportunity to deliver the Johannine message to the readers. Furthermore, this is rendered possible as a result of Nicodemus being defined as fool type character, which cannot act; he can only be acted upon by others. To conclude, Nicodemus appears by night to begin the narration and ends the narration in the night. Ultimately, he fulfills his role as the characterial literary device of the fool, shedding light on the Christological and theological message of the Johannine Community. His task complete, it is thus justified that he fades from the narration and disappears, leaving the stage he has set for the fulfilment of the Son of man theology, as Jesus is raised, as stated in chapter three, glorified, exalted, and made the Saviour of the world.


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Hylen, S.E. “Imperfect Believers.”  LouisvilleKentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

McDonough, T. “The Fool’s Pedagogy: Jesting for Liminal Learning.” Philosophy of Education Yearbook 2001, (2001): 107-115. University of Illinois, (accessed November 30, 2010).

Munro, W. “The Pharisee and the Samaritan in John: Polar or Parallel?.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 57, no. 4 (1995): 710-728. New Testament Abstracts, EBSCOhost (accessed November 30, 2010).

O’Day, G. R. “New Birth as a New People: Spirituality and Community in the Fourth Gospel.” Word & World 8, no. 1 (1988): 53-61. New Testament Abstracts, EBSCOhost (accessed November 30, 2010).

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The Miltonic Pendulum: the Son of God as the Counter Balance to the Satanic Promethean Hero

As a theologian and a English literature major, reading has become an interesting activity as it presents a multiplicity of possibilities when analyzing literary works. I cannot help but combine my two passions once and a while and this is the fruit of my madness.

            Milton’s Paradise Lost is established upon two literary keystones: thematic literary equilibrium and a static temporal setting. Consequentially, the flow of the play is modeled upon that of a pendulum unaffected by time as its structure, action, themes and imagery swing back and forth from one polar opposite to the next creating a literary equilibrium: the Son and Satan, Heaven and Hell, creation and destruction, light and darkness, life and death. As it is common knowledge the poem begins in medias res and then shifts to the past, then the present and then the future. Further, it is to be noted that there is no end to the poem; rather there is a beginning which is presented halfway through the poem, which opens open the narrative to Milton’s next poetic work Paradise Regained. This beginning “begins” in book V and VI of the poem. Most literary scholars would here mention a temporal discrepancy in Milton’s poetic structure; this discrepancy would stem from the unstructured temporal setting of the poem. Yet, taking into consideration that Milton wrote this poem as a literary representation of his De Doctrina Christiana, one must consider the time frame from a theological stand point. Hence, the setting of the poem being that of heaven, one must consider what time is for God. Taking a God point of view, we can discern that there is no past, present or future, but rather everything is happening outside of time in a discontinuous temporal episode. As a result of this, the new beginning of Milton’s poem will not be temporal; instead the new beginning in book V and VI will stem from the begetting of the Son by God, as well as the victory of the Son over Satan. Hence, it shall be posited that the Son of God is the turning point in Milton’s poem Paradise Lost, as he is the counter balance to the Promethean hero of Satan. We shall first observe how the begetting of the Son originates the turning point of the poem. Following this it shall be shown how the defeat of Satan by the Son completes the swing of the pendulum and initiates the new beginning.

1. The Begetting of the Son

Milton intended Paradise Lost to be a reflection of his theological work De Doctrina Christiana; this is illustrated in the character of the Son of God. Just as Milton understood Christ to be the turning point of human history, the Son of God is the turning point of his epic poem. This is the beginning of the pendulum’s swing. Therefore, the shift of the poem begins with the Father calling together all the angels and decrees to them that he has “begotten” a Son; his Son shall rein above all the angels and they must call him Lord:

Hear all ye Angels, Progeny of Light,

Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Virtues, Powers,

Hear my Decree, which unrevok’t shall stand.

This day I have begot whom I declare

My only Son, and on this holy Hill

Him have anointed, whom ye now behold

At my right hand; your Head I him appoint;

And by my Self have sworn to him shall bow

All knees in Heav’n, and shall confess him Lord (v, 600-608)

The Father makes the Son the King of Heaven and the Angels. Logically, this begetting causes some issues, for Abdiel later states in his poem:

Equal to him begotten Son, by whom

As by his Word the mighty Father made

All things, ev’n thee, and all the Spirits of Heav’n (V, 835-837)

Hence, the angels are present for the begetting of the Son. The complication is that it is first stated that the Father begets his Son at line 600 yet shortly after it is stated that the Son who has just been begotten existed prior to them; therefore, how can they witness the begetting of a Son who existed prior to them. Biblically and exegetically, this begetting also causes some issues. For in the beginning, the Son existed as the Word of God as stated in the prologue of John 1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn1:1); it is only at his baptism that his is begotten by the Father (Luke 3:22). Thus, why would Milton present a theological and logical fallacy in book V, 603-06? There is much speculation about what this reason may be; nevertheless, the best explanation com from Maurice Kelley who states that those three lines pertaining to the begetting of the Son “which for our purpose may be called a theological fiction”. (Kelley 261) Though Milton intended this epic poem to reflect his theological thought; it was nevertheless necessary, from a purely literary point of view, that there should be some event that would motivate Satan to rebel against God and Heaven. Milton’s literary intent does not denigrate his theological message; on the contrary the intent completes the message. The literary discrepancy was necessary, so that his overall theological message maybe delivered in its totality. William B. Hunter reemphasises this fact in his essay Milton on the Exaltation of the Son: the War in Heaven in Paradise Lost, as he explains it “Whenever Milton writes any Christian dogma into Paradise Lost, he really means it, in either a literal or a metaphorical sense-the senses in which he read his Bible.” (Hunter 218) Without the begetting of the Son the narrative could not have moved forward, nor would Satan be a Promethean hero; rather he would have lost his heroic status and have been simply a villain or a fool. It is the be severally emphasised, at the moment, that though Milton was writing an epic poem and literary divergences in the theology are inevitable, one should note that there is a scrupulous importance lain upon the theological and religious truth contained in his literary work. One must always remember when reading Paradise Lost, that theology is the inspirational cornerstone of this work.

Another significant aspect of book V would be the “incarnation” of the son, as a result of being begotten by the father.

all Angelic Nature joined in one,
Equal to him begotten Son, by whom
As by his Word the mighty Father made
All things, ev’n thee, and all the Spirits of Heav’n
By him created in their bright degrees,
Crowned them with Glory, and to their Glory named
Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Virtues, Powers,
Essential Powers, nor by his Reign obscured,
But more illustrious made, since he the Head
One of our number thus reduced becomes,
His Laws our Laws, all honour to him done
Returns our own. (V, 834-845)

This verse spoken by Abdiel suggests that the Son’s appointment as the angels’ king is very similar to the “incarnation” for them. Similarly to the incarnation presented in theology where the Son is made flesh and takes on the lowly form of man; in Paradise Lost the Son is “The Head, One of our numbers thus reduced” (V, 842-43). As Abdiel understands it the Son is reduced to the rank of Angel. The begetting of the Son in this passage is thus to be understood as corresponding to the birth of Christ as presented in the biblical texts. Following the general concept that all themes, characters and events must be polarized, Satan understands the begetting as “God’s unfair exaltation of one equal over another” (Weber 181). For Satan, the begetting of the Son is simply limited to the raising of the Son of God as Lord of the angels and Heaven. Hence, Satan’s understanding of the begetting reinforces the role of the Son as the turning point of the narrative. Furthermore, another aspect of the Son as a turning point of the narrative is that his incarnation, like that in the Gospel, will serve as a means of uniting, honouring and offer salvation to those who will accept them as their Lord. Also, Christ is a turning point according to the Father as he repeats often that the Son will unite everything under him “God shall be all in all” (III, 342), as it pertains to the one third of the Angles who do not obey Heaven. The Father further states that the Son has the glory of God and all his might, to defend the Kingdom of God against “Such a foe Is rising, who intends to erect his Throne” (V, 724-25). The Son must defeat the foe of heaven and unite all under God. Consequentially, the events of the begetting of the Son and his role of uniting everything under God, will lead to the exaltation of the Son in book 6.

The begetting of the Son in book V, as mentioned a priori, represents a further exemplification of the polarities found in the poem. Most important of these is the polarity, which Milton creates, between the Son of God and Satan. The result of the polar tensions, presented in the narrative, between these two characters are the major turning point between the first half of Paradise Lost book I-VI and the second half VII-XII. Furthermore, without this conflict, there wouldn’t be a possibility for the composition of Paradise Regained. What is at the heart of the opposition of the Son and Satan is that of unity and severance. Dr. Stella Revard states, in her essay The Dramatic Function of the Son in Paradise Lost, “God through the Son guides the universe toward its positive goal, while Satan in revolt attempts to move it counter-fashion.” (Revard 51) Throughout the poem, the actions of the Father and the Son are aimed at uniting all under God “God shall be all in all” (III, 342); on the other hand the goal of Satan is to keep the present disunity. What is interesting is that the three main characters of the poem (Adam, Eve, and Satan), distance themselves more and more from the Father, as well as their original union with him, as the poem develops. What changes this theme of distancing oneself from the Father is the Son. What differs with the character of the Son is that, unlike the other three, he willingly obeys whatever the Father commands him. The consequence, of obeying the Father, is each being in the kingdom of God must “risk his own “possible” lessening in order to obey” (Revard 53). Therefore, God is testing Adam, Eve, Satan, and the Son each are asked to obey God and risk lessening themselves; what God is requiring of them is that they trust in him. In the end only the Son trusts in the Father; consequentially, he is rewarded as God begets and exalts him above all others “Where now he sits at the right hand of bliss.” (VI, 892) The Son, in book V, portrays the counter model of the heroism which was present thus far in Adam and Satan. The character of the Son progresses in the poem from good to better as he is in a constant process of growth as he proves himself time and time again and gains more power and prestige from the Father. Hence, in begetting the Son in V 600, the Father was metaphorically recognizing the future manifestation of merit and glory, which the Son will assume in book VI as he will counter the Promethean hero of Satan and complete his role as the turning point of Paradise Lost.

2. The Defeat of Satan

The Son of God is regularly presented to be sitting at the Father’s right hand, he is his right hand, or is to the right of the father throughout book V. This is a firm presentation of the exaltation of the Son by the Father; nevertheless, the exaltation is not fully manifested until the War in Heaven. The swing of the pendulum reaches mid point when the Father declares:

Into thee such Virtue and Grace

Immense I have transfused, that all may know

In Heav’n and Hell thy Power above compare,

And this perverse Commotion govern’d thus,

To manifest thee worthiest to be heir

Of all things, to be Heir and to be King

By Sacred Unction, thy deserved right. (VI, 703-9)

The Son is exalted by the Father prior to being sent into battle. However, this exaltation of the Son by the Father was unavoidable, for the Father imposed conditions that made victory for either side impossible.

Gabriel, lead forth to battle these my sons

Invincible, lead forth my armed saints

By thousands and millions ranged to fight;

Equal in number to that godless crew (VI, 46-49)

God only sends out a only an equal force to match the one-third of the angelic host that rebelled against Heaven; he does not send out the entire two-thirds which remained loyal to him. Furthermore, God did not even need to send out an armed force to defeat Satan and his army; his omnipotence would have been simply sufficient to wipe out the rebelling force. Abdiel states this aforementioned fact prior to meeting Satan in battle:

fool, not to think how vain

Against the Omnipotent to rise in arms;

Who out of smallest things could without end

Have raised incessant armies to defeat

Thy folly; or with solitary hand

Reaching beyond all limit at one blow

Unaided could have finished thee, and whelmed

Thy legions under darkness (VI, 135-142)

By holding back his power, as well as the entirety of his military force, the Father created war conditions on day one that could not permit victory for anyone.

Day two of the battle presents a similar issue when it comes to a decisive victory, as it shifts the tide of the war. In day one there was no true victor thought he battle went to the heavenly armies. Keeping true to the pendulum form the momentum shifts in day two, the battle swings towards Satan’s army, with the introduction of artillery at line 571. There is a shift in the tone of the narrative in day two, as William McQueen explains it “The tone becomes crudely comic, signalling a corresponding shift from heroic warfare to burlesque.” (McQueen 95) The shift is quite obvious; in day one the tone is heroic and holding true to the epic genre; in day two this is not the case. In the fashion of a high comedy, in lines 621-27 of book VI, we have the angels loyal to the Father going from the victors in day one of battle to fools running and tumbling over.

Leader, the terms we sent were terms of weight,

Of hard contents, and full of force urged home,

Such as we might perceive amused them all,

And stumbled many; who receives them right,

Had need from head to foot well understand;

Not understood, this gift they have besides,

They show us when our foes walk not upright. (VI, 62I-7)

Furthermore, Abdiel is in a “gamesome mood” and puns are also used in the narrative in this point. Abdiel puns on “stumbled” and “understand” adding to the comedic aspect of this portion of the poem. Not only does the narration degenerate from a heroic tone to a comedic one, but the content of the narrative itself degenerates as the warfare which is presented in the text becomes undisciplined, filled with confusion and emotions, for both the armies of the Father and Satan. . If one follows the tone of the narrative it is no surprise that in lines 643-649 the Angels of the Father cast away their weapons. The battle between the two armies comes to a polar conclusion of what war narrations should be, as there are “hills being hurled to and fro” (VI, 664-65) and then “horrid confusion heaped upon confusion rose” (VI, 668-69).

Following the comedy and the confusion the reason for God delaying his intervention is made clear

And now all Heav’n

Had gone to wrack, with ruin overspread,

Had not th’ Almighty Father where he sits

Shrined in his Sanctuary of Heav’n secure,

Consulting on the sum of things, foreseen

This tumult, and permitted all, advised:

That his great purpose he might so fulfil,

To honor his Anointed Son avenged

Upon his enemies, and to declare

All power on him transferred: whence to his son

Th’ancessor of his throne     (VI, 669-79)

From the beginning God had set the stage for a higher purpose, to set the stage for the exaltation of the Son. The entire battle is to illustrate that the means to which Satan understands and desires power is wrong.  Consequentially, no matter what took place on the first two day of battle, the only path to victory was one through the victory of the Son of Satan. In the end the Son shows how one attains true power; therefore, what stems from this illustration by the son is teaching Satan a lesson about true power and how it is to be attained. Throughout the narrative, and specifically in book VI, Satan understood power as brute force, and greater armaments. As a result, his solution to the battle not going his way one day one is to retaliate with better weaponry; he takes the power he had and simply adds to it. Day one and Day two the Father remains removed from the entirety of the conflict, he observes as the two armies subsequently struggle to defeat one another until the battle deteriorates into comedic confusion. Once this deteriorated point is reached the Father says:

Whence in perpetual fight they needs must last
Endless, and no solution will be found:
War wearied hath performed what War can do,
And to disordered rage let loose the reines, (VI, 693-96)

The Father, in this instance, passes a judgment on Satan’s conceptual understanding of power; also, He uses the battle as a means to demonstrate to both sides what true power is. The manifestation of this lesson is complete on the third day with the defeat of Satan by the Son. The power which belongs to the Son, which he used to defeat Satan, stems from what was mentioned in book V: obedience. By being obedient to God and risking his own lessening in the battle, the Son is exalted and receives true power from the Father’s will. William McQueen states similarly in his essay that “God, the definitive commentator, points out the significance of the action, then withdraws, placing the culminating emphasis upon the Son”; hence, the Father, through the Son, successfully points out obedience is power.  The Father, at line 701, gives to the son the glory of ending the war “since none but Thou Can end it” (VI, 702). As a response to this, Milton uses the Son as a means to ties the word “glory” into “obedience”:

thou always seek’st
To glorify thy Son, I always thee,
As is most just; this I my glory account,
My exaltation, and my whole delight,
That thou in me well pleased, declar’st thy will (VI, 724-28)

In the first use of the word “glory” by the father at line 702, glory is equated with power. In repeating the word “glory”, in the context mentioned by the son, it is then equated to obedience. Once again power is linked to obedience. As a result of this the Satan is defeated by the Son prior to even entering the battle field; Satan is defeated in his quest for power. Without even looking for it the Son obtains more power then Satan, for he put the will of the Father before His own.

The prior mention defeat of Satan though is not the one intended primarily by God; hence Christ must turn to the task at hand fulfilling the will of the Father. At this point of the poem the Son mounts the chariot of Paternal Deity. It is at this point that the Miltonic pendulum reaches the end of its swing and its climax. Prior to going into battle, the Son assumes his power and authority from the Father.

Sceptre and Power, thy giving, I assume,

And gladlier shall resign, when in the end

Thou shalt be all in all, and I in thee

Forever, and in me all whom thou lov’st (VI, 730-35)

His mission and mandate is to return and be united to the Father for he is “all in all”. This aspect of the narrative, combined with what has been mentioned prior about book V and obedience, is severally similar to the Son of God Christology presented in the Gospel of John. In the Son of God Christology the Son is given a mission and mandate by the father just as in the narrative. There is also equality between the sender and receiver as is also presented in the poem. Thirdly obedience is key for the plenipotentiary must be totally obedient to the sender of the mission will fail; this is clearly represented in book V and VI. Finally, there is a return and reckoning, which is clearly depicted in this passage as the Son will return to the father to be exalted and sit “at the right hand of bliss” (VI, 892). Therefore, in mounting the chariot, the Son goes into battle as the singular champion of the Father, in the same way as the Christ is sent by God in the Son of God Christology to save man. There is thus no contest; Satan has no choice but to be defeated as he fades away to the back of the narrative. For the Son does not only obey the Father, he demonstrates, in his obedience, the power of unity with the Father. Pertaining to the chariot of the Paternal Deity, Stella Revard writes that “the coming of the Son may be seen as restorative or, it may also be seen as reunificative. The chariot is a beatific vision of heavenly unity.” (Revard 56) The unity of the Son is not only demonstrated by his actions, but the chariot (VI, 750-779) upon which he rides as well.

The first aspect of the chariot which demonstrates unity is the fire of the chariot. The fire is represented as a purgative fire; furthermore, in the way that it is used by Milton, the fire is synonymous with the creative nature of the Son and the Father for there is one fire which unites and forms the entirety of the chariot. The second unifying aspect of the chariot is the wings, eyes and wheels “And wings were set with eyes, with eyes the wheels of Beryl, and careering fires between” (VI, 755-56). This passage recalls Ezekiel 10:12, in both passages the wheel and its movement represent a cycle where the wheels are the beginning and the end. This echoes the role of the Son who is the source of creation as well as the turning point and the end as the one who defeats Satan. Each part of the chariot: wings, eyes and wheel work together to guide, direct and move the chariot onward. In the same way that the unity between the Father and the Son: guide, move and direct the Son in the Father purpose. The third aspect of unity, represented on the chariot, is the throne; the throne is a declaration of the Son’s kingship. Upon the throne, the Son is “all armed of radiant urim” (VI, 761); urim is a priestly symbol, for it is a gem worn upon the breastplate of Aaron the priest in Exodus 28:30. Hence, the Son wearing urim and seated on the throne shows that there is a unity between the offices of the priest and the king, both of which are united in the Son. This also demonstrates that in the defeat of Satan, the coming of the Son brings unity to Heaven. The chariot appears exactly and the center of the poem; as a result of this, the Son, being seated in the chariot is the true turning point of the narration. Through the path of destruction wrought by the Son and the chariot, unity is left behind; all eyes are pointed to the future.


In sum, the Role of the Son is pivotal in Paradise Lost, for not only does he initiate the movement of the play as it turning point in book V, but he completes the sway of the pendulum in book VI. The movement of the pendulum begins with the begetting of the Son by the Father.  In the poem, the begetting of the Son is equated to the incarnation; in being placed as the head of the angels he has been reduced to one of their ranks in similar fashion to being reduced to a man in the biblical texts. The begetting of the Son is a turning point for the Father will use this as a means of uniting everything, through the Son, under Him. This will be achieved in the Son defeating Satan, through this everything will be united under God and the Son will be exalted; the exaltation will complete the begetting of the Son. The begetting and exaltation of the Son brings in the concept of obedience in book V. This concept is supremely importance to the Son as the turning point for obedience is equated to power as well as glory in book VI. The glory and exaltation of the Son is a theme which dominates metaphorically and literally Paradise Lost; this is tremendously evident in book VI. In book VI, the Son is exalted by the Father prior to even being sent into battle. This results from the impossible conditions imposed by the Father, which rendered the war impossible to be won by either side. The Father permits Satan to obtain a taste of victory in his attempt to overpower the forces of Heaven. Nevertheless, the Father uses Satan’s concept of power as a means to teach him a lesson. In the end Satan is defeated, even before the Son enters the battle field, by the obedience of the Son; who obtains tremendous power and glory by simply obeying the Father. Hence, when the Son does enter the battle field upon the chariot of Paternal Deity, Satan is completely powerless and fades to the background of the narrative. The Son has completed the swing of the pendulum and has accomplished his role as the turning point of Paradise Lost. He is the tying link between the first six books and the last six. Since the poem is a literary representation of Milton’s De Doctrina Christiana, without the Son, it would not be possible for the narration to move forward and Milton’s poetic theology would not have been completed.

Old and New Covenants: Evolution of the Covenants from Noah to Jeremiah

The people of Israel were unique among ancient nations in believing that God had entered into covenants with themselves and their ancestors. It is thus not surprising that the narrative of the Old Testament is structured according to a clear cut sequence of divine covenants, which have been established between God and man, through the mediation of different individuals: i.e. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and David. The covenant is the primary means, for God, to express and define his relationship with Israel. It is through the evolutionary, and ever changing, pattern of the covenants, that God binds himself to Israel as their deity forever. The flow of the varying covenants, from grant-types, to renewals, to vassal-types, indicates the nature of the relationship desired by the God of Israel; as well as the ever more significant role necessitated of the people of Israel. The variation in the covenants also portrays the flourishing of the relationship between God and his people. This change and growth stems from the basic feature of a covenant: being that it requires two entities recognizing the concerns of both parties and arrive to a mutually acceptable solution, irrespective of terms or consequences. Nevertheless, it is not always necessarily a bilateral treaty, i.e. that each party consented to the covenants stipulations and obtained equal benefits. In some of the covenants, the lesser participant would accept the terms of the covenant because it was beneficial and its refusal would be disastrous. Therefore, the essay will explore the evolution of covenants—a special attention will be paid to YHWH’s relationship with man—from the Divine Covenants, to the covenant found in Jeremiah.  In the first part of this paper, three of the four major covenants of the Old Testament will be analysed. The first covenant to be approached will be the Noachan covenant, the second will be the Abrahamic covenant, and the third will be the Mosaic. Following the analysis of the four major covenants, we shall compare and contrast, in the second part, the Covenant found in Jeremiah 31:31-34.

1. The Four Divine Covenants Instituted by God

Divine covenants are acts of divine revelation, founded upon the human model of covenants; they are negotiated between two unequal parties. The concept of a covenant also requires the interaction of two different participants. God partakes in the contract by bestowing immense benefits upon humanity; humanity in turn must reciprocate towards their creator by accepting God and his covenant. Nonetheless, humanity cannot contribute to the covenant for they lack the will and the capacity to do so.  They must depend on God entirely to supply the will and capacity necessary to partake and accept the covenant offered by God. In divine covenants, not only is God able to accomplish what he promises in the covenants, man can infer that God desires to do so as a means to strengthen his relationship with his creation. This statement is factual in the divine covenants; though humanity always falls short in their response to God’s covenant due to their sinful and finite state, God never fails to hold on to his end. Furthermore, in divine covenants, God is the one that approaches man with a covenant, He is also the one who must conclude it; man can never approach God with a covenant. Man cannot approach God with a covenant, for the Creator is the only one who is infinite and can guarantee the fulfillment of the covenants proposed. Furthermore, what can man offer to the Creator of the universe, a finite being cannot suggest a covenant to an infinite being. Yet, participation of man in a divine covenant is not optional; for refusing to enter into a covenantal relationship with God will result in ruin. The Noachan Covenant is a great example if the standards of divine covenants.

1.1 Noachan Covenant

The covenant with Noah is pronounced by God in Genesis 9: 1-17. The necessity of this covenant stems from the introduction of sin to man by Adam and Eve in Genesis 4:8. The cycle of sin established, by the parents of humanity, necessitates the cleansing of the earth by the flood. After the flood, the original creation covenant is a renewed with Noah. The Noachan covenant contains the same parameters as the creation covenant; nevertheless, there are some modifications to the covenant. In the covenant, God states:

“I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you 10and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth. 11 I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”  12 And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: 13 I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. 16 Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”  17 So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.” (Gen 9:9-17)

This first covenant is a renewal of the covenant made between God and Adam. The Noachan covenant is a grant-type covenant; this signifies that the superior party alone swears the oath of the covenant; he is the one that establishes it with the inferior party.  God makes the covenantal promise to Noah, his descendants, all living creatures and the earth itself that “the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy the earth”. It is a universal covenant, as it encompasses the entire world. It is not a personal covenant, as the later covenant will be; nevertheless, this covenant sets the groundwork for the future divine covenants as they become more and more personal. Furthermore, the language of the covenant describes it as “everlasting” for God uses words such as “never again”, it is “for all generations to come”, he calls it “and everlasting covenant”. By making the covenant everlasting, God ascribes a sacredness to human, animal and divine life.  Hence, in this covenant, God is the one who assumes all responsibility in maintaining the covenantal promise; the inferior party, i.e. creation, has nothing to do as this covenant is a grace from God demanding nothing of the inferior party. Also, Noah has no choice but to accept the covenant for if he does not, all the earth is doomed to be destroyed by the Creator. Furthermore, God is the only one who can accomplish what is promised in the Noachan covenant. Nevertheless, man does have to participate in the covenant instituted by God; this participation is linked to the thrice mentioned rainbow. Stephen L. Harris explains in Understanding the Bible that “like the later agreement made through Abraham and Moses, the pact with Noah has a sign —the rainbow as a visible symbol of God’s reconciliation with humankind.” (Harris 107) Consequentially, the participation of Noah and his descendants in the covenant is by the belief that the rainbow was the sign of the covenant. The Rainbow is a visible sign from God, which demonstrates his invisible determination to remember the “everlasting covenant”. All man has to do is to have faith in God and in his ability to keep his covenantal promise.

1.2 Abrahamic Covenant

The next covenant to appear in the Old Testament is the Abrahamic covenant; God makes two covenants with Abraham in Genesis 15 and 17, which compounds one upon the other. These covenants mark the beginning of the close relationship between YHWH and the family which will become the people of Israel. It is to be noted that the covenant, in this case, is not yet between God and his people; it is a foreshadowing of events to come as it is a promise made to Abraham as an individual, nevertheless, the promise concerns a people to come: i.e. the descendants of Abraham who shall be the people of Israel. It is through the Abrahamic covenant that YHWH begins the redemption process of mankind, for Abraham is the covenant recipient par excellence and the model for future covenants. Abraham is chosen by God; following the covenantal standard it is not surprising that God intervenes first initiating the process. In Genesis 12 God says to Abram:

“Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Gen 12: 1-3)

This is the beginning of the covenantal process as God makes three promises to Abram: “I will make you into a great nation”, “I will bless you”, “In you all peoples of the earth will be blessed through you”. Not only do these three promises begin the covenantal promise, they outline the entire future course of salvation history. Furthermore, these three promises are tied to the narrative sequence of the covenant episodes linked to Abraham. The blessing of Abram’s descendants as a nation is implied in Genesis 15, specifically the episode of dividing the animals where God first cuts a covenant with Abraham. This covenant, like the Noachan, is modeled upon the grant-type covenant. God promises Abram: “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.” (Gen 15: 18-21) God also states that he will make his descendants as numerous as the stars in heaven. Unlike the Noachan covenant, in the Abrahamic covenant God does not only make a verbal promise to Abraham, but partakes in a common covenantal ritual of the Near East. The ritual consists of cutting sacrificial animals in half (Gen 15:9), laying the carcasses opposite one another permitting both parties of a covenant to pass through them. In doing so, both parties take on a symbolic oath, accepting the same faith as the sacrificed animals should any participant break the terms of the covenant. Being a grant-type covenant, God is the only one who subjects himself to the symbolic ritual reinforcing the promise he has made to Abraham. In turn, all Abraham had to do was believe in God and trust him when he told him to leave his land of Haran in Genesis 12 and come to the land of Canaan. Like the Noachan covenant, the Abrahamic covenant is tied to a sign, which come two chapters later in Genesis 17 linking both covenants together. Hence, following the blessing of Abram’s descendants as a nation comes the blessing of a dynasty in Abraham’s great name. In chapter 17, God reiterates the promise in made in Genesis 15; furthermore, God gives Abram the name of Abraham. It is interesting to note that the changing of the name signifies a new beginning; this opens a new phase in the history of the people of Israel, as well as the history of Christianity and Islam. Abraham can be understood to signify the father of many; yet, in becoming the father of a multitude, Abraham becomes the father of faith for the three major monotheistic faiths. The relational aspect of this fact goes beyond the simple limits of biblical faith. In accepting the covenant of God once again, Abraham accepts the sign imposed by God: the circumcision of every male. The sign of the circumcision is significant. The Noachan covenant was universal concerning all the earth; hence, the sign was very impersonal, that of a rainbow. The Abrahamic covenant is more personal; hence, it is not surprising then that the sign of the covenant will be more personal. This begins and foreshadows the personal relationship with God and his people, as the act of circumcision marks them as the people of YHWH.  Finally, the blessing of all the people of the earth through Abraham is illustrated in the promise made by God after Abraham demonstrates his obedience and faith in God by going to sacrifice his son in Genesis 22. It is to be noted that when we consider the Abrahamic covenant, in the wider context of biblical covenants, the covenant with Abraham anticipates the patter of future divine dealings with Israel, as well as salvation history and the fulfillment of the covenants with Moses, David and the New Covenant. The promise of land and a nation is fully realized in the Mosaic covenant, when the descendants of Abraham become a nation. The promise of land (i.e. the Promise Land) is truly important for the rest the biblical narration, as it is the place where God will be worshiped. The promise of a Kingdom and a Dynasty foreshadows the Davidic covenant, where God promises an everlasting dynasty and a Kingdom that will lead the nation of Israel. Finally, the promise of a universal blessing prefigures the covenant which will be made by Christ, where the Abrahamic covenant will spread out to the gentile nations.

1.3 Mosaic Covenant

The remaining divine covenant (Mosaic and Davidic) are grounded in the Abrahamic covenant. In the first two covenants, nothing is required from man; the covenants are based upon divine grace and not human behavior. This changes in the Mosaic covenant, for it presents a new type of covenant, that of the vassal-type. A vassal-type treaty comes from Near Eastern tradition of alliance making, where a larger nation will make an alliance with a smaller nation and the smaller nation must accept it. The weaker party is subject to a series of obligations, so that they may receive the benefits of the alliance. These types of treatise will generally insist that the vassal show loyalty to the superior party only. In the context of the Mosaic covenant, God proposes and alliance with the nation of Israel, who does not yet have land. He promises them a land, reiterating the Abrahamic promise, but only if they meet the obligations imposed by God. Since this kind of treaty calls upon the participation of both parties it is called bilateral. Like previous covenants made with God, man, in this case the slaves YHWH just saved from the Egyptians, participate in the covenantal pact by accepting what God offers to them: to be his people “I will be your God: You shall be my people” (Ex 6:7). This passage sums up the underlying primeval goal of YHWH’s covenant with Israel. Concerning the content of the Mosaic covenant, Stephen L. Harris writes “The central expression of Yaweh’s partnership with Israel, the Mosaic Covenant consists of two unequal parts: the lengthy enumeration of God’s ethical and legal requirements—encompassing all the laws in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—and the peoples brief collective pledge to obey them all.” (Harris 126) YHWH declares that the dedication of Israel, to the growing relationship between them and God, is to be manifested in every aspect of the individual life as well as the collective life of the nation. How this is to be done begins by God giving to his people the Ten Commandments at Sinai. The covenant at Sinai brings about a new feature to the construct of a covenant, as we see the appointment of Moses as the mediator between YHWH and Israel. In a way, YHWH is anthropomorphized through Moses, as Moses is the voice of God on Earth. This also foreshadows the culmination of the relationship between God and man, as later on Christ is understood to be a second Moses as the ultimate form of anthropomorphism under the form of the incarnate God. YHWH, in this covenant, wishes to be known by his people; Moses is his means to doing so. Furthermore, the Israelites come to know YHWH through their participation in the covenant through its laws. The participation in the laws of the Mosaic covenant goes beyond the simple Ten Commandments, but extends to the entire TaNaK. The people of Israel were imposed divine precepts, which extend beyond simply their moral behavior and into the social, political, jurisdictional and economic structure of their nation. Even the worship of YHWH was to be conducted according to specific directives used as a means to determine: the form, time, place, rituals and mediators of worship. YHWH laid out, on a silver platter, the means to grow into a relationship with Him for the people of Israel.


2. The New Covenant Jeremiah 31:31-34

The covenant in Jeremiah is truly different from the divine covenants, for it brings the relationship with YHWH to a singularly personal level. As R.E. Clements says” It may be stated at the outset of the exposition that it is highly unlikely that the passage, in the precise words in which it is now formulated, is from Jeremiah’s own lips.” (Clements 190) Nevertheless, Jeremiah contributes significantly to the Jewish religion; he points out that the faith of Judah did not depend on outward signs of the presence and protection of YHWH. Even though all the religious symbols and institutions have vanished (the throne of David, the Holy City, the temple of Solomon, the Nation of Israel), the Covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34 points out that YHWH will nevertheless still maintain his relationship with those who still believed in him; as it is stated in the Divine Covenants. God still maintained a relationship with his people while they were enslaved in Egypt; He sent Moses to save his people and serve as mediator in the forging of a new covenant. Why would YHWH, therefore, not do the same for his people who are in the Babylonian captivity? Those faithful to YHWH would not lose contact with him simply because they worshiped without a temple. Jeremiah foretells in his most famous prophecy that the old covenant YHWH made with Moses would be replaced by a better new covenant:

“The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband tothem,” declares the LORD. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jer 31:31-34)

In this Passage God “forgives their wickedness” and “remembers their sin no more”, he lifts the veil of sin, from original sin, lain upon his creation; he removes the barrier which bars his people from his divine presence and entering into relationship with their God. He brings forth, once again, the opportunity for his people to renew a covenantal relationship. Bernard P. Robinson in his essay Jeremiah’s New Covenant: Jer 31,31-34 writes that “Jer 31,33 does not accept that the Torah is already in people’s hearts; rather YHWH will have to intervene to place it there.” (Robinson 2) God says that this covenant will not be the same as the old ones he made with Israel, for they broke those covenants as they did not know his teachings. The older covenants were not personal enough for the people of YHWH to know their creator and God. Hence, in this covenant, as a means to reconcile the sinners to Himself, God assures in this covenant that He will put His teaching “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” (Jer 31:33-34) Though it is still a vassal-type covenant, the implications of the covenant are deeply personal; as God will plant into each individual great or small his teaching. This New Covenant “ushers in a new phase in Yahweh’s relationship with Israel. Like them it involves a response in terms of observance of the Law, but now the ability to observe the Law is placed in the heart” (Potter 349) Hence, not only the priestly nation will know YHWH, but everyone will have direct access to him; there will be no intermediary. Pamela J. Scalise in  The Logic of Covenant and the Logic of Lament in the Book of Jeremiah explains that “ The weakness in the old covenant relationship was the people’s unwillingness and inability to follow Yahweh’s way. In the promised new covenant with Israel, the will of God will be internalized by every person. […]  Jeremiah 31:33 promises changed hearts as God’s gift.” (Scalise 4) For God, in this new covenant, will keep to his Mosaic promise made to Israel: “I will be your God: You shall be my people”. Nevertheless, all those who believe in YHWH will not only have information about their God, but they will be made aware of a personal and intimate relationship with him. The language of this passage echoes that of the marital relationship; for the bond God desires to create is similar to the bond which unites a husband and wife. The role of man, in this covenant, is no different from that played in prior vassal covenants made with God. Through their faith in YHWH man accepts the terms of the covenant and appropriate the blessings offered by God. Once again, man must rely on God to supply them with the desire and ability to remain faithful to this covenant. Yet, the consequences of breaking the covenant will be of a greater significance for the covenant is targeted to individuals and not an entire nation. God makes a covenant with the “house of Israel and the house of Judah”, for the term of God’s chosen people does not represent a nation any longer. This stems from the non-existence of the southern kingdom of Judah and the northern kingdom of Israel, due to their conquering and destruction, at the time of this covenant. The human individuals of this covenant are not from the “Israel of the flesh”, i.e. Abraham’s descendants; rather, those who will enter into this covenant are to be understood as the “Israel of the spirit”, i.e. all people who are spiritually linked to Israel by faith. Though this covenant still holds to the promises made in the Divine Covenants, the New Covenant, in Jeremiah, is not the covenant made with the fathers of Israel. It differs, for it no longer contains the social, political, economical or ritualistic reglements instituted in the Mosaic covenant, for the Torah of YHWH has been written on the heart of those who believe in him. The significant importance of the Law, which stems from the Divine Covenants, has been replaced with a personal faith in YHWH in the new covenant, proclaimed in Jeremiah.


               In sum, in all covenants made with God, YHWH reveals his desire to rescue his fallen creations from the grasp of sin, and reunite them into a life-giving relationship with their maker. None of the covenants stem from man’s ability to receive or deserve God’s covenants. Rather, each is a gift of grace from God, to be received in faith, who desires simply to grow into a relationship with his creations. Though the kinds of blessing and promises made in the covenants differ; over time they compound over one another, as they are granted by divine goodness and mercy, which permits the flourishing of a relationship. Through the observation of the differing covenants, one can see a steady progression in the relationship between YHWH and man. In the Noachan we see the relationship at its beginning as it is between God and all of creation. The Noachan covenant is very impersonal, as it consists simply of God promising to never destroy the Earth by the use of flood waters. The covenant is universal encompassing all the earth and its creatures, not only man. In turn, the Abrahamic covenant is the first covenant made with man only. This is the beginning of personal covenants as God makes three promises to Abram: “I will make you into a great nation”, “I will bless you”, “In you all peoples of the earth will be blessed through you”. Once these promises are made the covenant is concluded in a traditional human way with the “cutting of a covenant” as it is tradition in the Near East. These three promises will be the foundations for all covenants to come. In the Mosaic Covenant, the personal relationship truly begins, as YHWH chooses Israel to be his people. Further, the covenant is a vassal-type; it longer simply relies on the grace of God, but also on the active participation of the Israelites in the relationship with their God. Their participation comes in their obedience to the social, economical, political, judicial and religious laws. This relationship to God and his people is similar to a filial relationship at this point. The relationship between God and his people will finally culminate in the covenant pronounced in Jeremiah 31:31-34. The Covenant pronounced in Jeremiah forms a marital relationship between YHWH and his people. This relationship stems from the fact that the covenant is made between the “Spiritual Israel” and not the “Israel of the Flesh”. Through this covenant YHWH makes an individual promise to write his Torah on the hearts of his people so that each and everyone, great and small, may know their God on an individual and personal basis. In the end, unlike the divine covenants, the covenant pronounced by Jeremiah, shows the people of God that in their ever growing relationship with God, they remain in a peaceful and saving relationship with their Redeemer and Creator.