John and Philosophy

A New Reading of the Fourth Gospel

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Troels Engberg-Pedersen
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     432 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Danish scholar Troels Engberg-Pedersen is dissatisfied with appeals to “mystery” when Johannine exegetes find themselves up against interpretative walls. He complains that “the idea of mystery has itself been repeated so many times that it has acquired a life of its own. Do we know that John was not, in fact, aiming at clarity and transparency?” (2, cf. 365; the term “mystery” appearing in scare-quotes passim). To illuminate said mysteries, Engberg-Pedersen delves into John’s gospel with the light of Stoic philosophy—much as he did in his earlier works on Paul’s letters, Paul and the Stoics (T&T Clark, 2000) and Cosmology and Self in the Apostle Paul: The Material Spirit (Oxford University Press, 2010). A major aim in John and Philosophy is to demonstrate the Fourth Gospel’s intrinsic coherence, which arises from John’s theory of Jesus’s identity vis-à-vis pneuma, a theory which according to Engberg-Pedersen remains abstruse until beheld within the framework of Stoic philosophical conceptions. Thus Engberg-Pedersen’s bold (and perhaps to some, unlikely) claim: “Philosophy stands for clarity” (365).

The book is a twelve-chapter odyssey through John during which Engberg-Pedersen deftly ranges between the minutiae and mountain vistas of the gospel, always with an eye to scholars who have gone before (notably, both Anglophone and continental European). The first three chapters constitute a theoretical prologue. Chapter 1 advocates a “sanitized historical criticism” (17) in which the disciplines of Literarkritik and Religionsgeschichte are left behind for a new approach in which narrative criticism works in tandem with historical-critical concerns. Chapter 2, an analysis of John 1, presents Engberg-Pedersen’s overarching hypothesis of the conceptual bedrock of John: The way “the logos became flesh” (John 1:14) in the person of Jesus is that the logos is pneuma, which according to Stoic philosophy is “a material entity, and hence entirely able to ‘become flesh’” (63). God bestowed pneuma on Jesus at his baptism (John 1:32–34), thus designating him as the executer of God’s plan for creation (logos), namely that humans gain eternal life. During Jesus’s ministry none of his followers yet possess pneuma, and therefore their belief exists only in varying degrees of inadequacy. Upon his death, however, Jesus loses pneuma only to regain it at his resurrection and thus be able to return to the Father and disperse pneuma as “Paraclete” to believers through baptism and Eucharist resulting in eternal life (cf. 110–12). Chapter 3 surveys how this theory of pneuma is supported by alleged uses of the concept throughout the remainder of the gospel, especially in conjunction with Jesus’s utterances as effusions of logos/pneuma.

With the stage thus set, chapters 4–10 are a test of the explanatory strength of this hypothesis for demystifying the mysteries of John. This test consists of a focused commentary on John 2–20 in which Engberg-Pedersen reads John as a “philosophical narrative”—a narrative with a clear second level of meaning that concerns “a coherent account at the conceptual level of a sizeable part of the world” (113, author’s emphasis). Employing this strategy, Engberg-Pedersen sets out to unravel an array of interpretative knots in John—some perennial, some new—by appealing to Stoic philosophical concepts, especially the overarching theory laid out in chapters 2–3. 

The book concludes with two chapters in which Engberg-Pedersen steps back to assess how his reading of John interacts with select topics in Johannine scholarship. Chapter 11 espouses John’s dependence on Mark (thought to be evinced by his appropriation of Mark’s “messianic secret” in inverted form) and Paul (thought to be evinced by his similar conception of being “in Christ”), and it argues that John’s gospel is not, in fact, anti-Jewish (supersessionism remains unaddressed). Chapter 12 explores the literary functions of imagery and time.

Above all, Engberg-Pedersen has presented a riveting take on John; it is manifestly interesting. The intellectual benefit of this is that old things are seen in news ways (or in old ways newly presented), an achievement bound to catalyze debate about and reevaluation of one of the most formative sacred texts of one of history’s most influential religions. Engberg-Pedersen is consistently transparent about his method—the nature of a “heuristic approach,” what counts as validation of its usefulness (cf. 21–35, 39, passim), and how that relates to historical questions (64–65). His invigoration of the use of Stoic philosophy in Johannine interpretation (others have gone before) is a fruitful foil for the often incognizant application to John of various forms and degrees of Platonism. 

Even so, Engberg-Pedersen may not always convince. Some will query whether the Fourth Gospel has one all-encompassing philosophical substructure, whether such a thing is even necessary for “coherence,” and whether the one Engberg-Pedersen identifies is really as omnipresent in the text as he supposes. Are there really as many allusions to Jesus’s baptism—and therefore to the proposed theory of pneuma—as Engberg-Pedersen allows (cf. 99, 105, 158, 196, 222, 248)? Others will question the tenability of specific aspects of his theory. For instance, when the wording of Martha’s profession, “you are the Messiah, the Son of God” (John 11:27), is compared with wording of John’s stated purpose, “that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God” (John 20:31), does this not problematize Engberg-Pedersen’s contention that “full belief in Jesus requires pneuma in the believer,” a requirement that “will only be fulfilled after Jesus’s death and resurrection” (123)? Or is it that Martha’s faith, like the faith of the Samaritan men in John 4, also “belongs at a post-resurrection state of the whole story” despite its place in John’s narrative sequence (135)? At this point, it hard to see how Engberg-Pedersen’s account passes the test of Ockham's razor he elsewhere invokes (325). 

Others again will wonder if Engberg-Pedersen’s hypothesis genuinely clarifies the opaque. If the perceived “mystery” of John 1:14 arises primarily from the Platonic notion that “[t]here is no physical connection between the immaterial … world of ideas and the material world of the senses,” then perhaps an appeal to “monistic Stoicism” genuinely clears things up (33–34). But if the perception of this “mystery” is rather a function of Jewish monotheism, then the materiality of the pneuma/logos seems beside the point. Finally, still others will detect instances in which a more integrated account of John’s influences would provide a more satisfying explanation of his view of Jesus. I for one consider that an account of John’s conception of Jesus’s identity in light of the bestowal of pneuma would be more complete if integrated with John’s messianology—that is, John’s self-aware (cf. John 4:25) deployment of the decidedly Jewish designation χριστός, “anointed one.” How does the Jewish tradition of anointing—a “material” ritual—interact with a Stoic conception of pneuma—a “material” substance? 

The raising of all such questions, though, is really a testimony to the value of Engberg-Pedersen’s work, which is as provocative as it is elucidating—marks of an important contribution to the discipline.

About the Reviewer(s): 

J. Thomas Hewitt is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
October 9, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Troels Engberg-Pedersen is Professor of New Testament exegesis at University of Copenhagen. His publications include Cosmology and Self in the Apostle Paul: The Material Spirit (Oxford University Press, 2010), Paul in his Hellenistic Context (T&T Clark, 2004), and Paul Beyond the Judaism/Hellenism Divide (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001). He is co-editor of Stoicism in Early Christianity (with Tuomas Rasimus and Ismo Dunderberg; Baker,2010) and The Emotions in Hellenistic Philosophy (with Juha Sihvola; Springer, 2009).


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