Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Questioning John

When our semester begins next week, I will be teaching a class on the Gospel of John. One of the things I do in many of my Bible content classes is help students to ask better questions of the text. Very often, the reason we get little out of the text is that we are asking the wrong questions. For example, we may come to the text with a question like "How can I deal with my discontent?" or "What should I do to improve my marriage?" But if the passage we are looking at is not intended to answer such a question, we will likely learn very little.

In the gospel of John, here are a few of the questions that I ask as I read a scene:
  • How does this scene demonstrate what we learned about Jesus in the Prolog of John? In other words, how does this scene draw our attention to the beginning of the book? Jesus as the incarnate Word, the source of light and life, the one opposed and misunderstood by his own, but accepted by a few; the one who reveals God; the source of grace and truth.
  • How does this scene foreshadow Jesus' "glorification" - his death, resurrection and ascension? In other words, how does this scene draw our attention to the end of the book?
  • How is Jesus revealed as the source of life? (related to the first question, but a dominant theme in many scenes)
  • Do the closing sayings reveal something? In some cases, scenes end with a saying that helps understand the meaning of the scene.
  • Are there any symbolic elements? Perhaps more than the other three gospels, John likes to use symbolism in his narratives. For example, John connects the Feeding of the Five Thousand with the Bread of Life discourse.
I'll be elaborating on these more in the next few months as I blog through the gospel of John.
The picture: St. John, by an unknown French illuminator, 1425.


  1. Great questions, thanks for this. I'm not in your class, but having the right questions in mind before getting into the text sounds like an invaluable tool. Too often in my devotional time I'll start reading with me in mind first rather than God. It seems that when I ask the right questions and get a better understanding of the passage, then inevitably the passage asks questions of me, which often leads to conviction, worship, repentance, action, etc.

    (looking forward to the John blogs! I'm a long time reader, first time comment-maker)

  2. I second DJ. Very illuminating questions, Dr. Manning. By your example I can see how valuable learning to ask the correct questions will be. You've given us a glimpse of how the brilliant minds see so much depth in the words of Scripture. How they get to the meat.

    How have you come to learn which questions to ask?

    I too look forward to the John blogs!

  3. Hi DJ and Keoki,

    Thanks for your comments. DJ, I think you are right. When we allow the Scriptures to ask their own questions, we often end up being questioned and convicted.

    Keoki, I think I first got the idea of thinking carefully about questions from Walt Russell, author of _Playing With Fire_. Each of his chapters has guiding questions for reading different genres of scripture. I also developed a chart with my own questions - I will post that on my blog soon.

    One of the habits I have developed is asking: "What question is in the author's mind? What is his answer to his own question?" I think it was my doctoral mentor, Marianne Meye Thompson, who pointed out how often John seems to be showing how Jesus is the source of life. And I probably picked up the forward- and backward- perspectives of John's scenes from works by Raymond Brown, Gary Burge, and Alan Culpepper.

  4. Thanks a million, Dr. Manning. Geez...I really gotta read more...


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