Novelistic plot and motifs in the Gospel of John

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by Neil Godfrey

“The narrative of the Fourth Gospel is a synthesis of two distinct stories — the cosmological tale and the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth — into one coherent narrative.” (Jo-Ann A. Brant, Divine Birth and Apparent Parents: The Plot of the Fourth Gospel, in Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative.)

The following notes, based principally on Jo-Ann Brant’s articles (the one above and Husband Hunting: Characterization and Narrative Art in the Gospel of John, in Biblical Interpretation, 1996, 205-223), looks at some ways the Gospel of John appears to draw on novelistic motifs and plots to construct it theological narrative. How the author mixes honey with his medicine.

Abandoned child

The true father of Jesus, God himself, chose to leave his infant son in the foster care of humble parents from Nazareth. By doing this he was knowingly leaving his son to become a victim of false accusations, envy, abuse and death. But his motive was entirely good — it was done out of love and not any desire to see his son die. All blame for mistreatment falls on those who carry it out, and the father bears no responsibility for what his son suffers.

That the hero or heroine was abandoned by their parents and left to face death, and raised by others of a very lowly status, was a common theme in ancient mythology and novels:

  • King Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia for the sake of the Argives. His wife, Clytemnestra, accused him of a criminal act.
  • Zeus abandoned Heracles to be raised by Amphitryon. Yet Heracles acknowledged Zeus as his true father.
  • Dionysophanes unwillingly abandoned his infant son, Daphnis, to exposure (thus the abandonment is not meant to be seen as a cruel act); he was rescued and raised by poor farmers. (Longus, Daphnis and Chloe)
  • Lamon felt obliged to unwillingly expose his daughter (thus the abandonment is not meant to be seen as a cruel act), Chloe, to exposure; she was also rescued and raised by poor farmers. (Longus, Daphnis and Chloe)
  • Persinna abandons her daughter, Charikleia, to save both herself and her daughter. The mother’s motives are thus entirely good. (Heliodorus, An Ethiopian Tale)

Beginning of the conflict

In ancient novels the conflict often opens up over a conflict between what a parent wants concerning the marriage of their child and what the son or daughter him or her self wants. This is how the author of the Gospel of John opens the conflict too — except it is done through the innuendo of symbol and double meanings. But first, it should be kept in mind that in ancient novels and plays a premature death of a child was frequently described as a “funerary wedding”, or death itself as a consummation of a marriage.

It does not fit the theological requirements of the author to have Jesus be married himself. Nevertheless the story of the wedding at Cana, like other episodes in this gospel that point to double meanings of images that are made to serve both mundane literal roles as well as carry theological symbolism, this wedding story is told with subtlety and double entendre innuendo. And the author uses the Wedding at Cana to open the conflict over Jesus’ true family identity that is to be binding thread of the plot.

We are first told that there is a wedding at Cana. The mother of Jesus is said to be there (2:1). Then we learn that Jesus is there also, but not with his mother; rather he is said to be with his disciples (2:3), those for whom he is destined to lay down his life (15:13).

The mother asks her son to provide the wine. The steward thanks the bridegroom for providing the wine, indicating that this is the bridegroom’s responsibility. It appears that Jesus acted in the role of the bridegroom in supplying the wine. Through the same innuendo the reader knows that the wine at the wedding is symbolic of the blood that Jesus will pour out at his death. There is no doubt that the author intends the reader to see in this wedding a symbolic message for the crucifixion scene at the end of the gospel. As if to confirm this view, soon after the Cana scene John the Baptist declares that Jesus is indeed the bridegroom whose wedding is yet to come (3:29).

The mother is never named and this indicates that the author wants readers to see her acting out the mother’s role. In the absence of a father it is the mother’s role to arrange the wedding. In the sparse way the story is told the author has conveyed through innuendo that the conflict between Jesus and his mother is a conflict between the marital wishes of the mother and those of her son.

The mother wants her son to marry but the son wants another marriage than the one desired by his mother. When she asks him to provide the wine (to act as the bridegroom) he declares his opposition to her plans: “Woman, what does your concern have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” He does not even address her as his mother, but curtly with the unfilial “Woman”. The rift between the parent and child over their matrimonial purposes is stark.

After the wedding he returns to Capernaum with his mother and brothers and disciples, but did not stay there (2:12). He does not belong as part of his mother’s plans so soon leaves his family.

After this family rift and parting his public life begins. His first act is to visit the Jerusalem temple.

Greek “erotic” novels (eros=love) told stories conflict between parents who wanted one thing for their children and the children who wanted something else. Typically these wants had to do with love and marriage:

  • In some novels (An Ethiopian Tale, Leucippe and Clitophon) the son or daughter leaves their adoptive parents to marry someone other than the one they had chosen.
  • In Leucippe and Clitophon, the boy and girl attempt to make love before their parents’ approval, and become ashamed of their deception of their parents and violation of the norms, and flee their households. After adventures they eventually learn to humble themselves before their parents and submit to an honorable marriage.
  • In Chaereas and Callirhoe the boy and girl who fall in love belong to parents who are political rivals. There is conflict between the parents and their children (who are supported by the popular assembly). Chaereas is subsequently torn between staying to care for his father who is not far from death and his desire to search for Callirhoe who had been sold into slavery.

Wanderings and signs

Novels would commonly begin with an opening conflict that led to a series of episodes in which the main character wandered from adventure to adventure, facing death, danger, conflict and temptation at every turn. The hero would also carry signs of their true parentage, and these signs would themselves often be the focus of the movement of the story. Some would be in awe of the signs (whether they were something about their physical appearance or tokens or some form of wealth) and want to protect the hero; others would be envious or greedy and want to kill them.

At the “cleansing of the temple” Jesus declared that his true parent was God in heaven (2:16) and tells his opponents by what sign he can prove this (2:18-19). At his second appearance in Jerusalem he again proclaims that his true father is God (5:17), and this time “the Jews” plan to kill him for making this declaration of his true parentage (5:18). Others, however, interpret his claims metaphorically and plan to make him their king (6:15), but he rejects their understanding too. He thus alienates both sides and even those who had once regarded him with favour begin to wonder whose family he really comes from (6:42) and even some of his disciples reject him (6:66).

Typically in novels the siblings of the foster child who has superior parents will let their jealousy be known. And Jesus’ brothers act this way, too, when they attempt to goad Jesus into going up to a feast in Jerusalem to prove his claims of divine parentage (which they did not believe he could do) openly to all (7:3-5).

Finally the crowds begin to accuse Jesus of being illegitimate. To suggest he was a Samaritan (8:48) was to suggest he did not know who his true parents were. Twice they attempt to stone him for his continuing claims that God is is father (8:58; 10:31).

When Jesus pointed to the signs to prove his claim the Jews attempted to seize him (10:39), apparently for a trial to test his claims. But after he showed them the sign of raising Lazarus from the dead the priests determined to have him executed (11:47-48). Their reason was that he claimed that these signs proved he was indeed God’s son (19:7), although they had to change that initial charge to allow Pilate to carry out the execution.

In ancient novels the signs are often misinterpreted or mistreated so that the abandoned son or daughter is treated cruelly and unjustly by others. The fault is the greed or ignorance of their enemies, never the fault of the true parent:

  • Pirates who have captured Habrocomes and Anthia prepare to take them sexually, but H and A “invoke rather than curse their parents who have sent them on their journey.” (Xenophon of Ephesus, An Ephesian Tale)
  • Dionysias, the foster mother of Tarsia, covets the wealth left with Tarsia to prove her true parentage, and plots to kill her to seize the wealth token.
  • Compare Callirhoe’s beauty: this was treated as a sign of her noble birth that led some of her captors to spare her and others to kill her.
  • Caiaphas and the Jewish leaders misinterpret or are envious of the signs of Jesus and seek to kill him.

In all cases, it is not the fault of the true parents for abandoning their children that they suffer such dangers. The blame lies entirely with the ignorance, lust or greed of those in the world to which they are abandoned.

The first love scene

Can’t have a good novel without good love scenes. The gospel of John plays with some of the standard ones.

“There is near consensus among literary critics that the scene at Jacob’s well follows conventions of the betrothal type-scene found in Hebrew narrative.” (Husband hunting, 211). The theological symbolism of this story is clear so I am focusing here instead on the literary allusions from which it is constructed.

The scene is a blend of the comic and serious:

  • The comic: Jesus comes at midday to the well — the wrong hour for both going to the well and courting. (cf Gen. 24:11 and 29:7)
  • The serious: The woman never fulfils the apparent reason for her coming to the well in the first place, to fetch water. The readers is thus invited to be suspicious of her motive.

Jesus initiates the courtship scene and the woman resists:

  • Jesus asks for a drink (cf Gen 24:14)
  • The woman realizes and points out to him that they are a mismatch (4:9)

But if the woman’s initial resistance is to turn to acceptance she must conceal another reason she believes they are an ineligible couple: the fact that she has had five husbands and currently is living with a partner.

Jesus reinitiates the courtship and the woman teases and mocks him in reply:

  • Jesus provocatively (playfully?) turns the routine around and says she should be the one asking him for a drink (4:10)
  • “Really? From where then do you have that living water?” and “Come on now! Surely you are not greater than our father Jacob?” expresses the tone of the Greek.

This exchange contains sexual double entendres in the references to fountain, well and living water — appropriate for a comic courtship scene:

  • In Cant. 4:15 the bridegroom calls is bride “a garden fountain, a well of living water, and flowing streams of Lebanon”
  • In Prov. 5:16-18 men are admonished to “drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well
  • In Deut. 33:28 the well of Jacob refers to Jacob’s descendants
  • In Hos. 13:15 the fountain and spring of Ephraim refer to Ephraim’s descendants
  • The Greek expression used for “everlasting life” “refers to physical life, to human substance, and reflects Jewish affiliation” (Brant citing David Hill, Greek Words and Hebrew Meaning)
  • The symbol of water underpinning the exchange represents the “unambiguously represents the satisfaction of desire” (Brant citing J. Painter in a discussion of John 9)
  • The water and thirst motif indicate both Jesus and the woman are driven by desire (Brant citing Stephen D. Moore)

Thus the subtext contains the woman playfully challenging Jesus to prove his fertility. She has moved from initial resistance to expressing a willingness for her thirst or desire to be satisfied with his seed.

Novels typically created suspense before the final act of betrothal by the characters having to pass tests of celibacy and worthiness to go ahead with the marriage. That is the significance of Jesus’ abrupt change of direction:

  • Jesus said to her, Go and call your husband and come here

Jesus has put a stop to the playful banter by putting her to the test of worthiness to go any further. The woman knows she cannot pass this test so she lies or misleads

  • The woman answered and said, I have no husband

She began resisting Jesus, unwilling to give him a drink at first. But now she is willing and she lies to try to pass the test. Jesus changes the tone of the scene by declaring that he knows more than she realizes. Now he directs the conversation from its comical sexual allusions into a serious spiritual discourse. When he finally persuades the woman to seek the spiritual fulfilment his desire is at last fulfilled. He is no longer hungry when his disciples return with food.

The second love scene

At the commencement of the story of Lazarus the author informs readers that the Mary he is to refer to is the one who will later in the gospel anoint Jesus’ feet with perfume and her hair. Thus we are given a motive for Mary’s later act — she loves Jesus out of gratitude for raising her brother from the dead.

Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. (12:3)

The reader knows that the woman is preparing Jesus for burial, but the actors in the narrative do not know this. Rather, the scene is heavy with sensuality, and suggestive of a prenuptial ritual. At the level of the textual narrative (apart from its symbolic meaning) it appears that Mary is attempting to court Jesus, even asking him to marry her.

  • The nard is said to be costly and genuine. It was a perfume intended to serve as an aphrodisiac. (cf Cant. 1:3, 12; and Eccl. Rab. 7:11 says it is the perfume that spreads from the bedroom)
  • The feet, and the washing of the feet, may be euphemisms for sexual intimacy. (cf Ruth 3:4 and Lev. 18:6-18; 2 Sam. 11:8 and Cant. 5:3; even Deut. 25:9 associates a man’s feet with an obligation to marry; and especially Joseph and Aseneth 20:3-4 — “your feet are my feet . . and your feet another woman will never wash”)
  • In drying Jesus’ feet with her hair Mary perfumes her hair. This makes her more sexually appealing (cf Ps. 133:2). For a woman to let her hair down loose may have indicated her marriageable status. (Later rabbinic literature said it was inappropriate for a married woman to allow her hair down in public. Luke’s gospel affirms that the woman was viewed as acting scandalously. Cant. 4:1 also associates loose hair with sexual love.

But Jesus will turn the role of Mary from a bride into another traditional female role, that of his mourner. The wedding he seeks is his death.

The resolution

At the end the main character must reconcile his own desires with those of his father. Jesus does not wish to die but acknowledges that that is the reason the father has left him to face the world (12:27-28). His obedience to the father’s will ultimately confirms that he truly is the obedient son of God.

  • Similar motifs are at work in An Ethiopian Story: a trial at the end, a daughter who must prove her obedience to her father, a father who feels obliged to sacrifice his daughter for the sake of the people — although in this case the crowd calls out for her to be set free, contrary to the demands of the crowd in the gospel.

But the end cannot come without a resolution of the conflict with Jesus’ human parent, his mother. His final moments of trial and death are the end result of Jesus embarking on his own course in conflict with his mother. There must be a reconciliation to avoid a conclusion stained with impiety.

Finally Jesus’ time comes. This is the hour he said was “not yet” at the marriage at Cana. Jesus has been identified as both the sacrificial lamb (1:29, 36) and the bridegroom (3:29). At the marriage that Jesus plans his blood is the wedding wine (2:10-11; 4:13-14; 6:54-56; 7:37-38; 15:1; 18:11; 19:34).

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Neil Godfrey

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11 thoughts on “Novelistic plot and motifs in the Gospel of John”

  1. “By doing this he was knowingly leaving his son to become a victim of false accusations, envy, abuse and death. But his motive was entirely good — it was done out of love and not any desire to see his son die. All blame for mistreatment falls on those who carry it out, and the father bears no responsibility for what his son suffers….In all cases, it is not the fault of the true parents for abandoning their children that they suffer such dangers. The blame lies entirely with the ignorance, lust or greed of those in the world to which they are abandoned.”

    Your assessment of the Gospel of John is a pure joy…I only wish I had had your insights before I completed my latest book. While we have only speculation to know the real intent of the gospels creation…we can piece a plausible answer to fill in the spaces. And, you sir, have done a marvelous job at that.

    “By doing this he was knowingly leaving his son to become a victim of false accusations, envy, abuse and death…”

    This line reveals the first and foremost reason for John’s writing the gospel in the first place. The early Jewish Christians in Greece were watching their message of Jesus expanding and morphing…and yet, no Jesus…they had abandonment issues. So, the writer(s) of the book of John begin to ask of their selves “Is this all there is?” And so, you have the above first line as a realization….God creates life knowing leaving his creation to become a victim of false accusations, envy, abuse and even death….why?

    “But (the father’s) motive was entirely good — it was done out of love and not any desire to see his son die…”

    In this line you have identified the single basic reason for our existence…Love. All John wants to do is try to give the christian community a long term plan to live out the Jesus message on a daily basis until such time Jesus returns.

    In the meantime, the writer(s) are figuring out the meaning of Jesus’ life, unwittingly, in unbelievable clarity. Now, John is beginning to morph the Jesus story and message by applying the methods of explaining Jesus in the form of Greek literature. Through your analysis we are literally allowed to see the evolution of the Jesus message; you will perform miracles as I have and even greater (John 14). In other words, “you have the capacity to make an impact on each other, so love each other as (Jesus) loved you.”

    “All blame for mistreatment falls on those who carry it out, and the father bears no responsibility for what his son suffers….In all cases, it is not the fault of the true parents for abandoning their children that they suffer such dangers. The blame lies entirely with the ignorance, lust or greed of those in the world to which they are abandoned.”

    Finally, “the father” has not a clue why we do the things we do…BUT, their is an awareness that what we do significantly affects the lifespan of the creation. While we would call it blame the reality is what we do to cause ignorance, lust, and/or greed is all based on an illusion that we have another life to live outside of the expressed love of the father that placed us here. Each and every outcome of belief in such brings sadness, depression, sickness and ….yes…blame.

    Eventually, we will come to discover as John had that our loving behavior toward one another is tantamount to our going to a place where NOW we seemingly can not go. And, picking up our mat and walking is a far better thing to do than to sit, as we have been, as cripples thinking someone is coming to save us from a life infested with ignorance, lust, greed, and …yes….even blame.

    Thank you for your wonderful insights….I would be honored if you might take a gander at my book IM with God. http://www.booklocker.com/books/2980.html

  2. The insights are Jo-Ann Brant’s, which I have taken from the article cited in the first paragraph.

    She was comparing the narrative plot of John’s gospel with similar plots in popular fiction from the same time, showing how the author of the gospel was shaping a story out of the materials he had absorbed from his wider literary culture.

    Today the notion of human sacrifice belongs to primitive barbarism, and the gospel of a Father God sacrificing his son comes from the same barbaric milieu. That is not love for the son, that is abuse and murder.

    “The world” for which he is said to have sent his innocent son to mistreatment and death should be horrified and turn their backs on such a primitive barbaric God who elsewhere taught that none should die for the sins of others (Ezek.18:20).

    God could simply have forgiven people without playing the abusive mind game of also insisting they feel guilt for the crime that he himself committed by suborning a handful of others to be his executioners.

    Having said that, the novelistic plot motif was based on the customs of the day. Much of the modern world does not do child-abandonment. The gospel was written in a time when unwanted children were abandoned and left to the chance of a passerby taking them in. Society’s standards today have progressed and there are more systems now to care for those children.

    The Christian gospel belongs to an age of outdated values and standards every bit as much as Judaism and the Moslem religion.

  3. For me, the crucifixion never made much sense. In fact, it meant as much to me as a hill of beans. And the resurrection was always somewhat of a mystery leading me to confusion. It just never made much sense. It seemed, the only way it was supposed to make sense to me if I would call myself a sinner. I was not about to lie to myself like that….I sorta kinda like me and who I am.

    What did make sense to me, though, was the behavior that drove a man or men and women to THINK about the meaning of another persons life and formulate a message of self-impowerment which I believe ultimately to be what is The Gospel of John.

    Regardless of whether it be you or Jo-Ann Brant, the pieces to the puzzle of how the gospel message was constructed is brilliantly laid out. These writers were truly struggling with how they could motivate their community to live their lives by becoming The Way, The Truth, and The Life for each other to live The Good Life.

    We are the one’s who project on to a Creator (God) our human characteristics…it is all we have to draw conclusions. The ways we tend to do it just don’t make sense sometimes. What may at first seem to be abandoment turns out to simply be Life waiting to be lived. Ultimately, as the writers of John may have discovered, living our life, participating in our lives, is simply a matter (as I said) of picking up our mats and walking….Just do it!

    While the Christian gospels do belong to an age of outdated values and standards….they do allow us to reason….Life is still waiting for us to do something about it, and in it, in order for us to feel the love available within it.

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