Understanding Misunderstandings In The Fourth Gospel -- By: Donald A. Carson

Journal: Tyndale Bulletin
Volume: TYNBUL 33:1 (NA 1982)
Article: Understanding Misunderstandings In The Fourth Gospel
Author: Donald A. Carson

Understanding Misunderstandings In The Fourth Gospel

Donald A. Carson

Conventional wisdom assures us, in the words of the bard, that ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’. Conventional wisdom is doubtless right: labels cannot change ontology. But labels, especially half true labels, can breed a great deal of misunderstanding, and bruise reputations rather severely. Even the rose would suffer a serious decline in esteem if for a period of ten years every published reference to it included some such description as the following: ‘a prickly plant of the genus rosa, whose spikes make it difficult to handle, and whose scent, though found pleasant by some, cannot make up for its destructive potential as a notoriously fertile breeding ground for aphids, a dangerous form of plant lice; and whose most characteristic colour explains the association of the expression “the rose”, in popular parlance, with erysipelas, an inflammatory cutaneous disease frequently accompanied by fever in which the skin assumes a frightening, deep, red hue’.

Lest anyone be alarmed, I am not about to embark on a moralizing plea that we cease using all labels; for then we would have to stop talking, writing and thinking. It is simply a way of saying that labels, which help us organize our thoughts, enable us to communicate, and reduce complex conceptions to easily communicable proportions, can also, wittingly or unwittingly, distort, malign, conceal and blur. In NT studies, one need only think of such slippery expressions as ‘Jewish Christianity’, ‘eschatology’ and ‘salvation history’. In these cases, the labels are tricky because in the literature they are used with a profusion of meanings. By contrast, in the case I want to consider, the meaning of the expression ‘literary device’ is fairly stable and comprehensible. Yet in the sentence, ‘Misunderstandings are a Johannine literary device’, the label ‘literary device’, though technically accurate (like my gloomy description of a rose), is nevertheless an inadequate description of an important and recurring phenomenon. Misunderstandings in the fourth gospel

will themselves be misunderstood if they are reduced to the dimensions of a ‘literary device’.

I shall begin by describing the most important literature on misunderstandings in John. Then I shall offer a brief critique, followed by a number of positive observations which will, I hope, shed a little light not only on John’s ‘literary device’ of misunderstandings, but on his entire gospel.


In 1948, Oscar Cullmann published a perceptive article in which he points out how many words in John have a double or at least ambig...

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