The Disciples in the Fourth Gospel: A Narrative Analysis of Their Faith and Understanding

Nicolas Farelly Coronet Books Inc, Tubingen December 21, 2010
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Readers of the Gospel of John often wonder whether statements of faith attributed to disciples are evidence of their salvation (e.g., 2:11). Is this full salvific faith or something less? Farelly has produced an interesting and detailed narrative study of the Gospel of John that focuses on the faith and understanding of the disciples throughout the book. Questions regarding the soteriological status of the disciples and the nature of pre-resurrection faith are among the ones this volume helps answer. Thus does the Gospel present a difference between “pre-Easter” faith and “post-Easter” (or “full”) faith (p. 3)? How and why does the author characterize the disciples as he does?

This is primarily a literary study. Alan Culpepper’s important volume, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1983), is appealed to and similar terminology is used (e.g., “implied author,” p. 10). The focus on literary issues results in minimal discussion of authorship (which Farelly leaves open; p. 20), historical context, and related matters. However, secondarily, it is a historical and theological study (p. 4). In addition to examining the description of the disciples, Farelly also asks, “Is there anything in the text that indicates how the reader is expected to respond to the characterization of the disciples?” (p. 7). Farelly basically wants to pursue how the author’s point of view shapes the narrative, how faith and understanding function, and how the author’s temporal perspective shapes the manner in which the disciples’ faith and understanding are presented (p. 10).

Chapter 1 covers introductory material, including a helpful introduction to narrative criticism (especially pp. 4–6). It also defines what is meant by “disciple” in the book. Disciples are generally followers of Jesus and are not limited to the twelve (pp. 14–17; prominent individuals are featured in chap. 3). Farelly notes that the narrow group, “the Twelve,” is not emphasized in this Gospel. He traces the development of faith among disciples. Characters who appear only once (e.g., Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman) are not considered in this study because there is no way to trace their faith and understanding throughout the Gospel.

The main descriptive analysis occurs in chapters 2 and 3. Chapter 2 looks at the overall development of faith throughout the Gospel. Farelly assumes Raymond Brown’s four-part structure of the book (1:1–18; 1:19–12:50; 13:1–20:31; 21:1–15) and traces the general development of the disciples’ faith and understanding through each of these parts and their subsections. Interestingly, instances of a lack of faith and understanding are usually followed by Jesus’ teaching. A helpful point made at the end of the section on 13:1–20:31 can be applied to the entire discussion. Correct belief about Jesus’ identity, Farelly suggests, is necessary for eternal life (p. 86). In chapter 3 the development of faith and understanding of five characters is traced throughout the Gospel of John: Peter, Judas, Thomas, the beloved disciple, and Mary Magdalene. This is a helpful chapter and the juxtaposition of these characters helps highlight their uniqueness. For example, although Peter denied Jesus, he never abandoned or betrayed Him. Peter had insufficient understanding, but his faith was not questioned. Judas, however, is called a disciple, but he is never said to have believed. The reader learns about Judas mostly through comments by Jesus. He is considered a part of the inner circle (“the Twelve”) but is associated with the devil (6:70–71) and can be placed with the recently mentioned broad group of disciples who failed to follow Jesus. Thomas was willing to die for Jesus, but he did not know where Jesus was going. He is a good example of a disciple who had faith but who lacked important understanding. Mary Magdalene also had her share of misunderstanding; however, she was the one who began the activity of proclaiming the glorification and lordship of Jesus.

Chapter 4 interacts reflectively on the work in the preceding two chapters in considering how the disciples’ faith and understanding function in the narrative plot and purpose of the Gospel. Although “the main plot of the narrative is concerned with Jesus’ commission to be a witness and a judge in the cosmic trial between God and the world” (p. 172), a subplot brings this theme to the role of the disciples. Part of Jesus’ mission was to prepare the disciples to continue this mission. The disciples’ misunderstandings serve to “remove doubts or misperceptions about key points of Johannine theology” (p. 181) and to cause readers to “distance themselves from the character of the disciples” because they know more than the disciples. Thus the disciples’ misunderstanding is intended by John to cause growth in the readers and prepare them to be witnesses. Essentially the narrative presents the disciples as “believers who stood in a living relationship with Jesus even before his glorification, but who also experienced significant growth from the resurrection on” (p. 216). The disciples did not come to a “well-balanced” understanding of Jesus and His work before the resurrection, but they did afterwards.

In the final chapter Farelly moves from the literary to the theological. He sees faith and misunderstanding working together. “Misunderstandings do not always denote man’s tendency to reject God’s revelation, but may actually represent faith’s desire to understand” (p. 217).

Near the end of the book Farelly provides a concise summary of what his findings are intended to accomplish: “The Fourth Gospel’s intent is to nurture the faith and understanding of believers through its presentation of the person and work of Christ, and through a process of identification with the disciples who are themselves being prepared for their witnessing ministry” (p. 228). The book concludes with a seventeen-page bibliography (pp. 231–47) and three brief indexes: sources, authors, and subject (pp. 249–60).

The literary approach is helpful and illuminating. One weakness, however, is the lack of discussion of the overall context of the book of John. Although a narrative approach is grounded in the text, the text is nevertheless grounded in its context. Incorporation of such material would have contributed to his study. A narrative approach is one of the more productive approaches to Scripture, and this study is helpful for understanding difficult issues related to John. In rare cases Farelly’s conclusions may be too precise. For example he suggests Jesus’ glorification was for mission and not faith (p. 227). But these cannot be separated so easily. Jesus’ glorification must have had significant impact on many aspects of the disciples’ lives.

This book makes a significant contribution toward understanding John’s characterization of the disciples’ faith and understanding as well as contributing to understanding John’s desired response from his readers.

—Joseph D. Fantin

July 1, 2012
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2012 vol. 169 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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