November 22, 2022

Theme of Misunderstanding in the Gospel of John

The reoccurring pattern in John is that Jesus speaks in a provocative and ambiguous way and his audience misunderstands his words, regardless of if they are adversaries or followers. Jesus always provides clues and clarification within the dialogue as to what he means. Be careful to look at the surrounding context for statements that clarify verses that seem ambiguous.

Germans scholars identified the motif of misunderstanding in the 20th century. Hans Windisch in 1923 regarded expressions of misunderstanding in the Fourth Gospel as a mark of Johannine style. H. Leroy interpreted this technique as the genre riddle, related to oracle and joke. The unreal riddles of John are given an abstract answer, which could not be understood without the accompanying clarification. (George Strecker, History of New Testament Literature (1997) p. 175) 

R. Alan Culpepper further elaborates on the misunderstanding, irony, and symbolism of John in his book Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, A Study in Literary Design (1987): 

The continuous implicit communication within the Fourth Gospel is a major source of both its power and its mystery. What seems clear and simple on the surface is never so simple for the prospective reader because of the opacity and complexity of the Gospel’s subsurface signals. Various textural features, principally the misunderstandings, irony, and symbolism, constantly lead the reader to view the story from a higher vantage point… It is the discovery of the subsurface signals which had previously escaped the reader’s notice that allows the gospel to be read again and again with pleasure and profit. (p. 151)

One of the distinctive features of the Gospel of John is the frequency with which its secondary characters misunderstand Jesus. These misunderstandings may be characterized in general terms by the following elements: (1) Jesus makes a statement which is ambiguous, metaphorical, or contains a double-entendre; (2) His dialogue partner responds either in terms of the literal meaning of Jesus’ statement or by a question or protest which shows that he or she has missed the higher meaning of Jesus words; (3) In most instances an explanation is then offered by Jesus or (less frequently) the narrator. The misunderstandings, therefore, provide an opportunity to explain the meaning of Jesus’ words and develop significant themes further. They have [greater] effect on the reader than if the meaning had merely been stated plainly from the beginning. (p. 152)

It is clear, that the same formative principle is at work in the Fourth gospel and in the Hermetic dialogues, however different the content may be. The evangelist, it seems, has molded 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. The typical Johannian dialogue must be accepted as an original literary creation owing, so far as form is concerned, little or nothing to the primitive Christian tradition. (C. H. Dodd, Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel, p. 321) (p. 152)

For more on this, see my page on the Devised Literary Structure of John:

Also many of my pages on address misunderstandings of John, including understanding logos, I am statements, Jesus is the model, and the preexistence of Christ.

Related Websites: - Understanding the various issues pertaining to the Fourth Gospel – The true meaning of the Word in the prologue of John  – Understanding how Jesus identifies himself in the Gospels – Understanding how Jesus is the model for us – Understanding in what sense Christ preexisted - Understanding a key biblical concept pertaining to Christ – Refuting erroneous conflations used to infer Jesus is ontologically God – Understanding what is the Holy Spirit - The essential humanity of the one mediator Jesus Christ - Distinction between one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ - Analysis of Philippians 2: Exaltation not preexistence

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