Interview with Douglas Estes on How John Works (Skinner)

douglas-estesA few weeks back I mentioned the publication of a really great new book entitled, How John Works: Storytelling in the Fourth Gospel (Atlanta: SBL Press), co-edited by Douglas Estes and Ruth Sheridan. I was privileged to contribute one of the fifteen chapters to this volume, which boasts an international lineup of Johannine scholars. I recently had a chance to interview Douglas about the book. Here’s what he had to say.

1) With the proliferation of books in biblical studies, what makes this book special?

“This book is special because it fills in a needed gap between an in-depth commentary and a more topical survey of the Gospel’s features. How John Works is neither a commentary, nor a monograph; instead, it explores fifteen of the most important issues that makes John ‘work’ as a gospel. Each of these issues are part of the ‘narrative dynamics’ of the Gospel—what makes the story John’s story. Also what makes this book special is that it covers the Gospel in a wide-ranging way but without getting too bogged down in the details (as a commentary does, for good reasons, of course) or only looking at one issue (as a monograph does). (We could just say that ‘Chris being a contributor’ is what makes the book special—and while I agree!—it is not the only thing!)”

2) Who are the primary readers of this book; how do you see it being used?

“The original plan for How John Works was to create a textbook that students could use to understand how a narrative like the Fourth Gospel has proven so effective for almost two millennia. As Ruth and I were planning and editing the book, we kept coming back to the question “Will this help a student?” I see the book being used two ways: first, it can be used as a textbook in a NT Literature class, especially one where there is a focus on the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of the Christian texts; and second, as a general introduction to the literary design of the Gospel.”

3) With such a broad group of scholars—literally from all over the world—with different backgrounds, do the chapters come together? Or are there notable divergences?

“One goal that Ruth and I had from the beginning is that the book would not be “just a book of essays.” To that end, we worked with SBL Press and our contributors to have unique voices that fit well together. Whether this would work in practice was a conversation point between a number of us during the process—but in my humble opinion, it actually worked very well. Each contributor brings a unique perspective, of course, but the perspectives do fit together very well and bring a complementary perspective to the whole book.”

4) What is one way that your thinking about the Gospel of John changed by putting together Estes Sheridan Front Cover.inddthis How John Works?

“One way my thinking changed while working on this book is in the area of how important the literary study of this Gospel really is. As a scholar, I admit that I have always leaned more to the literary side of things than the historical (though I believe the separation between the two is often needlessly overblown). When we planned the book, as a textbook, I was thinking more that it would summarize important elements for students, and did not think about it cutting new ground. But, How John Works definitely does cut new ground. Sometimes literary approaches get knocked in scholarly circles as simplistic or limited, but editing this book reminded me how much that is not accurate—at least, when literary concerns are taken seriously, interact normally with historical concerns without artificial brackets, and address big issues in a profound way.”

5) How John Works covers fifteen ‘narrative dynamics’ found in John. Why fifteen? Are these the most important?

“This was a lengthy discussion that Ruth and I had as we were first putting the book together. There was nothing special about fifteen, though we knew that we wanted more than only a few. We also knew that it wouldn’t work to have, say, forty. So what we did was to try to pick the most important narrative dynamics, and we came out with about fifteen. Beyond that number, there were other narrative dynamics that would have been worthy of a chapter … but we wanted to be as broad as we were deep.”

6) Is there much more that can be said about the literary features of John? What is the future to this?

“Yes, there definitely is much more that can be said about the literary features of John. On the one hand, there are always details that some enterprising PhD student will discover in the process of writing their dissertation. Plus, there will also be plenty of opportunities in the future to do comparative studies of literary features with other ancient texts (which really has only begun, what with so many discoveries and recent, computerized access to them in the last century). On the other hand, there will always be a need for reevaluations and summarizations. As to the future, no, this is not the last word; I am hoping to start on a follow-up volume to this one in the near future, perhaps a Vol 2 of Storytelling in John, that will look at literary issues in John from a quite different perspective.”

Thanks to Douglas (and Ruth) for their great work on this book, and also to Douglas for answering our questions! Stay tuned because we are actually going to be giving away of copy of this book in the coming days. . . . .

Several New-ish Volumes of Note (Skinner)

CroninI am nearly always in the process of reviewing multiple books. I have recently finished a few that I am about to submit reviews for and wanted to mention them here.

The first is Sonya Shetty Cronin’s revised dissertation (Florida State University), entitled Raymond Brown, ‘The Jews’, and the Gospel of John (LNTS 504; Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2015). As with many books that began their lives as dissertations, this is not the type of volume just anyone will be interested in buying. The subject matter is sufficiently narrow to limit this book to scholars and graduate students. However, the book is a solid historical study of Brown’s evolution on the matter of hoi Ioudaioi in the Fourth Gospel. Shetty examines Brown’s writings–both pastoral and academic–from 1960 to 1997, with several posthumous writings thrown in. The major argument of the book is that in his post-Vatican II context (which helped facilitate interfaith dialogue and sensitivity between Catholics and Jews), Brown evolved drastically over time in his view of “the Jews” in John. Cronin shows that in the 1960s, Brown started from a position that could potentially be called “anti-Jewish,” but which, at the very least, lacked nuance. By the time of his untimely death in 1998, Brown had reached a nuanced stand that helped him (and his readers) stay aware of and avoid potential anti-Judaism in teaching and preaching John. The book is interesting and fairly well-written but shows the signs (especially in its redundancies) of having been a dissertation. There is one thing that really drove me crazy about this book: Cronin misspells Frank Moloney’s name (as Maloney) at least 15 times. Inasmuch as Moloney was the editor and shaper of Brown’s most important posthumous publication (and a preeminent Johannine scholar in his own right), one would have thought such an important detail would not have been overlooked. Overall, however, I do feel that I can recommend this book for those interested in the subject matter. The idea for this study is interesting, especially for those interested in the legacy of one of America’s most important Catholic biblical scholars.

von WahldeThe second book I want to mention is Cam von Wahlde’s recent monograph, Gnosticism, Docetism, and the Judaisms of the First Century (LNTS 517; Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2015). This book aims to question various proposals about the cultural and religious backgrounds against which the Johannine literature appeared. Thus he discusses Gnosticism, Docetism, and various forms of Judaism before arriving at his own proposal. I have always been a big fan of von Wahlde’s work, and as is the case with much of his previous work, I have really enjoyed reading this book, though I don’t know for sure where I stand on some of his conclusions. As many readers will know, von Wahlde has a massive three-volume commentary on the Gospel and Epistles in which he provides a detailed proposal for understanding three different editions of the Gospel. The first portion of the book is largely dependent upon the reader’s awareness and understanding of his previous proposal in the commentary (which he attempts to summarize briefly in the book’s beginning). I do feel as though von Wahlde’s argument is quite compelling in places but a bigger problem I have is with the speculative nature of much of the argument. (This concern is not so much rooted in mistrust of von Wahlde’s work but in my own discomfort with many source- and redaction-critical proposals.) In order for you to buy his argument (which again, is often compelling), you must be able to understand and accept much of his construct of the stages of Fourth Gospel formation. At the end of the day, this is a very helpful volume in many ways. As one would expect, the breadth of von Wahlde’s research and awareness of the pertinent issues is unassailable. This is definitely a must-have for those doing research in Johannine studies.

HarstineThe third book I want to mention briefly is Stan Harstine’s, A History of the Two-Hundred Year Scholarly Debate About the Purpose of the Prologue to the Gospel of John (Edwin Mellen, 2015). This is admittedly a long title for such a short book! In a brief 124 pages, Harstine looks at the history of scholarship on the Prologue (John 1:1-18) from the late 1700s up to the present day (Chapter One) with a specific focus on arguments about the relationship of the Prologue to the “gospel proper ” (John 1:19-20:31). In Chapter Two he identifies eight central concerns raised by scholars over the centuries, offering “pro” and “con” for each. Then in Chapter Three he presents his own concern for an overlooked issue: themes common to both the Prologue and the gospel proper. He concludes the book (Chapter Four) with an example of how his unaddressed concern might look in gospel exegesis. He calls this a “helical reading,” which utilizes elements of both synchronic and diachronic approaches to exegesis. Harstine has done good work in pointing us to a discussion that needs further examination. The express purpose of the book is to provide information that will serve as a starting point for future dialogue. Since the book contains material that has not been pulled together elsewhere, I think he is successful in this aim.

BarkerNext up is James Barker’s recent offering, John’s Use of Matthew (Fortress, 2015). I just received this book in my campus mailbox last week. I intend to provide a full-scale review in due course. I really like what I have read from James, so I’m looking forward to seeing his full argument. Since I have only looked at the book, I have nothing substantive to say at this time, though I do want to make a comment about the book’s layout. I have said this in recent weeks and I’ve heard others express the same sentiment: what is up Fortress Press’s new spacing and fonts? They are unattractive to say the least. (I say this not only as one who regularly reads and reviews books in the field, but also as one who is currently working on a book with Fortress!)

Conference on John and Judaism (Skinner)

CulpepperLast week I received word from Alan Culpepper that his institution would be hosting a pre-SBL conference in Atlanta devoted to the topic of John and Judaism. Here’s an excerpt from the flyer Alan circulated:

Building on the success of the Symposium on the Johannine Epistles, hosted by Mercer in 2010, and the conference on C.H. Dodd and Raymond E. Brown, hosted by St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore in 2013, the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University is pleased to announce a conference on “John and Judaism,” that will begin with dinner on Wednesday, November 18, and end at noon on Friday, November 20.

Following the keynote address by Prof. Jan van der Watt on Wednesday evening, the conference will address three topics: (1) John as a Source for Understanding Judaism (Thursday morning), (2) aposynagogos? Reappraising John’s Relationship to Judaism (Thursday afternoon and evening); and (3) Reading John as Jews and Christians (Friday morning). Major papers will be presented by Craig R. Koester, Adele Reinhartz, Craig A. Evans, and Reimund Bieringer, and nine short papers, three on each topic, will fill out the program.

I can tell you that I attended the pre-SBL conference on Dodd and Brown in Baltimore back in 2013 and found the sessions interesting and substantive. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out of this conference. For complete information on the lineup and registration, see here, here, and here.

My New Book, Reading John, Is Finally Available!!! (Skinner)

Reading JohnOK, if you’re on any of my social media feeds, you can feel free to ignore this blog post, as I’ve been talking about this non-stop for the past 24 hours……BUT, my latest book, Reading John, is finally available for purchase. Of course, I’m quite happy with the finished product, but I don’t expect you to take my word for it. Here are the endorsements from the back cover:

“Studying or teaching John? Reading John takes anyone interested in learning to read the Gospel of John and leads them step by step on a delightful journey into its strange and wonderful landscape, with the result that each chapter builds reading competence. Skinner is impressive as a teacher and guide, equally at home in the ancient world, the Gospel of John, and twenty-first-century culture, and he has a keen ear for the nuances of each. This guide is ideal for Bible study groups and college classes.”
–R. Alan Culpepper, Dean, McAfee School of Theology

“In this fresh introduction to John, Christopher Skinner treats readers of John to some of the most valuable of recent approaches to the Fourth Gospel clearly and succinctly. Embracing the narrative through the lens of the Prologue, appreciating the sketching of characters, understanding misunderstandings, and seeing John as a two-level drama afford new insights that would otherwise be lost. Here we see John’s theological, historical, and literary riddles addressed in helpful and compelling ways; Skinner’s readers will not be disappointed!”
–Paul N. Anderson, Professor of Biblical and Quaker Studies, George Fox University

If you are a non-specialist reader who is interested in the Gospel of John, a student who wants to learn more, or a professor looking for a solid teaching tool, I would appreciate you giving this book a try.