Matthew G. Ancell and V. Stanley Benfell, Humanities, Classics and Comparative Literature
The stated purpose of the Gospel of John is that the reader or hearer “may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (20.31) (2). Regardless of whether the Fourth Gospel is written to a community of believers or to convert the unbelieving, as is debated, this verse points to life through Jesus Christ as the focus of the book. Each of the four Gospels offers a testimony of Jesus as the Christ. Culminating in the passion and resurrection narratives, each version presents a unique witness of Christ’s mission. While details in each account differ, the axis of each book’s message is the crucifixion scene. Peculiar to John’s gospel, and central to the book as a witness of Christ’s salvific power and purpose, is the flow of blood and water from the side of the crucified Jesus (John 19.34). The inclusion of such details in the Johannine Passion has prompted considerable commentary. This study focused on how this episode illuminates the rest of the gospel as a unified literary, historical, and theological work. Moreover, it demonstrated how the evangelist employs the symbols of blood and water to state his soteriological message.
I operated from the theoretical assumption that the text of the Fourth Gospel is a unified work, with a high degree of artistry and complexity. Traditional so-called scientific methods of biblical study (such as source criticism, redaction criticism, textual criticism, and tradition history) assume the biblical texts to consist of clumsily compiled and redacted writings, and are more concerned with breaking up the text in order to discover what is behind the narratives than with examining them for their literary and artistic features in their received form. Consequently, most scholars until the past decade neglected the narrative dynamics of the New Testament that are now being addressed. Recent trends in literary analysis have produced valuable results by examining the biblical books as cohesive wholes. Using such literary techniques, I examined the “narrative Christology” (to borrow a term from Mark Stibbe) of John; that is, a study of John’s theological purpose in a literary and historical narrative.
A close reading of the Greek text in conjunction with current techniques of narrative criticism will lead to a consequential new reading of John. More specifically, I will demonstrate that the blood and water episode contains symbols of death and rebirth that create imagery in harmony with John’s purpose. I intend to show the significance of the crucifixion scene (particularly the issue of blood and water) and its relationship to the other images in John. The episode has a narrative function that unifies the book and which suggests a completeness of Christ’s character as a giver of life and salvation. Perhaps most significant will be an examination of how the Johannine writer presents the blood and water episode not only as text but as an ontological event that unifies the reader to Christ.
The marriage of biblical and literary criticism has produced a fruitful methodology that is, in essence, nothing that has not been done before; it is just good reading. It is however, a much-needed response to the methods of biblical criticism with which it co-exists. Abandoning source-hunting for a reading of the text as we have received it allows us to focus on what the text has to offer, rather than viewing it as a byproduct of irrecoverable “originals.” John, if read as a coherent whole, presents a moving account of the Passion that succeeds in justifying such a reading, as it proves to be thematically unified. John’s purpose that the reader or hearer believe in Christ’s divinity and thus “have life in his name” (20.31) finds expression in the most unlikely of moments: the surprising issue of blood and water from the dead Son of God. Blood and water, in conjunction with the image of Christ’s crucifixion, bring together the various birthing motifs in the Gospel and juxtapose them with an erotic metaphor, couched paradoxically, in a death scene. In the midst of a destructive act of death, the witness comes to believe by being both begotten by and born of Christ.
John employs the symbols of blood and water consistently throughout his text uniting it with the imagery of unity and rebirth. The strange mention of the blood and water attests that physical and spiritual birth must be preceded by the spiritual or physical procreative act. These symbols of blood and water testify of both the begetting and birthing necessary for salvation. Suggesting, as they do, unity with Christ and rebirth in Him, the reader can engage Christ by witnessing his ‘hour’, and consequently be unified with Him through a repetition of the crucifixion as an ontological event, the hour of the atonement, an hour out of time. That is, the reader becomes the witnessing believer, and the blood and water are symbolic tokens of the believer’s new relation to Christ (3).
- The complete paper can be found in the Harold B. Lee Library under the same title.
- NRSV, or alternately “continue to believe.”
- Special thanks to Dr. Stanley Benfell and Dr. Steven Sondrup for their help and encouragement with this project.