Understanding the Misunderstanding Sequences in the Gospel of John -- By: William T. Pyle

Journal: Faith and Mission
Volume: FM 11:2 (Spring 1994)
Article: Understanding the Misunderstanding Sequences in the Gospel of John
Author: William T. Pyle

Understanding the Misunderstanding Sequences
in the Gospel of John

William T. Pyle

Assistant Professor of Supervised Ministry
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Wake Forest, NC 27587


The Gospel of John has fascinated readers and hearers for centuries with its depth of spiritual meaning and abundant symbolism. The propensity of the work to employ terms of double meaning, metaphor, and analogy creates an environment in which tacit communication occurs. Alan Culpepper identified this subtle implicit commentary in John as a “major source of both its power and its mystery.”1 The Gospel does more than fascinate readers with the aptitude of the author to use double entendre or to play word games. These narratives move readers and hearers to confess Jesus as the Christ. Through the use of “recurring misunderstanding, sharp, witty irony, and profound, moving symbolism the gospel moves the reader to soul-searching insights and compelling invitations to faith.”2

The roles of irony and symbolism in John have received considerably more attention than misunderstanding in Johannine studies. Paul Duke provided a thorough discussion of Johannine irony with his excellent book, Irony in the Fourth Gospel.3 C. H. Dodd provided the groundwork for research into symbolism in The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel.4 Xavier Leon-Defour, Wayne Meeks, and John Painter have continued to probe the function of symbolism in the Fourth Gospel with insightful journal articles.5 The theme of misunderstanding in the Fourth Gospel has been noted at times, but little attention has been given to the effect of this phenomenon on the reader.6 A word of explanation and delineation is needed at this point. Misunderstanding is not limited in John’s Gospel to Jesus’ words. Jesus’ signs were also accompanied by misunderstanding as His observers struggled to understand their significance. His actions were also open to being misunderstood. Donald Carson has perceptively identified sixty-four instances of misunderstanding in John.7 This article will focus on a distinct pattern of misunderstanding succinctly described by J. H. Bernard as “saying of Jesus; misunderstanding of it; saying repeated, expanded, and explained.”8

The “misunderstanding sequence” in John’s Gospel consists of...

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