Baker Academic

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Reading John with Christopher Skinner

Back in April the good people at Wipf and Stock sent me a review copy of Christopher Skinner's contribution to their Cascade Companions series, Reading John (2015; pp. xii + 152; list: $19.00). Skinner's book languished on my desk for weeks—nay, months!!—as I tended to more pressing reading and writing projects. Then, in late August, I cleaned off my desk and staged what I meant as a humorous photo. When I posted online a quip about cleaning the crap off my desk and finding a surprise (pictured, below), another Chris[t]—Tilling; let the reader understand—pointed out Skinner's book. Since then, I have felt shame at not reading this book sooner. As a result, I decided to spend some time between semesters addressing my misstep.

Skinner offers this book as "the most intensely personal thing that I have written" (ix), and his personal engagement with both the text of the Fourth Gospel and the concerns of his readers is evident throughout this slim volume. In a refrain that Skinner repeats perhaps a half-dozen times, the goal of this book is to help readers be[come] "better, more perceptive readers of the Gospel of John." Toward that end, the book offers eight chapters, all of which focus on historical and literary challenges facing those seeking to become better readers of John. The first chapter offers five "starting points" for a historically sensitive reading of John, and the second chapter unpacks the Johannine Prologue (John 1.1–18) as "the interpretive key for reading the Gospel of John." The next four chapters explore features of this historically sensitive reading in light of the Prologue, including (i) John's two-level drama (chapter 3), (ii) "the Jews" [hoi Ioudaioi] and the question of anti-Semitism in John (chapter 4), (iii) the "alien tongue" (= foreign, or distinctive language) of the Johannine Jesus (chapter 5), and (iv) misunderstanding among the Fourth Gospel's characters (chapter 6). Chapter 7 puts these pieces together by reading a significant pericope (John 3.1–21: Jesus' encounter with Nicodemus) in light of the previous chapters' discussions. A final brief chapter raises the question of reading John theologically in our contemporary context, respecting both the first-century context of John's Gospel and the original audience as well as the fact that this ancient text continues to speak to the needs and concerns of Jesus' followers today, two millennia later.

The book includes numerous tables that function like asides to the reader: they offer some piece of information that Skinner (and scholars in general) take for granted but of which the reader may not be sufficiently aware. These tables perform multiple functions, from explaining technical terms (Septuagint, or Chalcedonies Definition, or the Tetragrammaton), to presenting scholarly discourse  (e.g., on John's alleged "anti-Baptist polemic," or the translation of Ioudaios as "Jew" or "Judean," or the significance of anonymous characters), to presenting textual features of the Fourth Gospel itself. These tables are helpful—especially considering the goal of equipping readers to become "better and more perceptive." Unfortunately, they are sometimes awkwardly situated vis-à-vis the main text, and Skinner doesn't offer the reader a "List of Tables" in order to help locate a table when he refers to it later in the book. These are minor quibbles, however; the tables numerous tables help initiate the new reader to the Fourth Gospel in ways they would miss without Skinner's experienced guidance. Skinner also provides readers with plenty of suggestions "for further reading." Footnotes are kept to a minimum but betray the author's acquaintance with the diverse and vibrant body of Johannine scholarship.

In short, this is a helpful guide for anyone looking to become a "better, more perceptive" reader of this, the Church's "spiritual Gospel." John presents challenges to anyone who would take up and read its presentation of Jesus of Nazareth, whether one's interests are primarily historical, literary, or theological. The Church's decision to literally bind this Gospel with the so-called Synoptic Gospels, which are quite different from John, and so to lock their fates together means that we can ill afford to neglect John's testimony to Jesus. While the challenges—and even the desirability—of "letting John be John" may always present themselves, Skinner helps us face those challenges with a sense of confidence that we are not merely reading ourselves into this text.


  1. Hi,

    I regret that "psychological" (in addition to terms like socio-historical, literary, theological) seems to never be included among the interests of the ancient writers or contemporary readers or scholars. What a great hole this leaves in our interactions with the texts, etc. whether the gospels, Paul, or general themes like the coming son of man.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    1. Thank you, Gene. I'm not sure, however, what you're responding to. Where should I (or Skinner) have mentioned psychology, and what would that mention have added to this discussion?

  2. Rafael, I was responding to the second sentence in the final paragraph. I have not read Skinner. I personally think that all the ancient writers had psychological interests, and that modern readers and scholars need to be aware of their own psychological response to the text, in this case GJohn. Perhaps this is especially true of GJohn whose methodology seems to separate it from the other gospels.

    If your sentence had read, "historical, literary, theological, or psychological," I probably would have remained silent. As an example of my point, I'm sure that the interests of Jewish Merkabah mystics (c. 200-700 C.E.)in the throne chariot vision of Ezek 1 (cf. Isa 6, Dan 7) transcended historical, literary, and theological interests. They wanted to personally see and hear God. (See Walter Eink, The Human Being, 2002, 215ff.)

    Thanks for your interest in clarification. I've often been told that I write obscurely.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.