On Emperors and Clothes

I don’t recall hearing this twist to the textile-imperial metaphor before (D. A. Carson, review of David Rensberger, Overcoming the World: Politics and Community in the Gospel of John, Themelios 17:1 [October–November 1991]: 27–28):

Somewhere along the line, the text has been left behind. Not only have too many speculations been built on other speculations, but the obvious features of the text, such as its Christology, its claims to bring witness, its insistence on the uniqueness and exclusiveness of Jesus the Messiah, its remarkable ability to distinguish between what happened ‘back there’ during Jesus’ ministry and what was discerned only later, are all lost. Many scholars doubt that John 3:3, 5 is primarily about baptism, and that John 6 is primarily about the eucharist; but at very least, the point must be argued, and not assumed on the basis of a doubtful assumption as to how easy it is to read the ecclesiastical realities of the end of the first century off the surface of the text. And how can the Johannine emphasis on the uniqueness of Jesus as the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, as the one who dies so that the nation may be saved, as the shepherd who gives his life for his sheep, be so quickly transmuted into a call that we in our turn take away the sin of the world by opposing injustice? I am not for a moment suggesting we should ignore injustice; I am merely saying that this is an extraordinary reading of John’s gospel.

Indeed, I have gradually come to the conclusion the Fourth Gospel was not written primarily for church consumption anyway, but as an evangelistic booklet. I realize this point is debatable; but the very fact that it is debatable but is not, by and large, being debated, is profoundly troubling and indicative of what is going wrong in Johannine scholarship. The hesitant suggestions of earlier scholars have now become the ‘givens’ of this generation of scholars, who feel free to build fresh, hesitant suggestions on top of them. I am tempted to say that the emperor has no clothes—or, more conservatively, he is down to his underwear.


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