[K:NWTS 5/1 (May 1990) 47-50]

From the Librarian's Shelf....

George Mlakuzhyil. The Christocentric Literary Structure of the Fourth Gospel. Rome: Pontifico Istituto Biblico, 1987, 370pp., $38.00 paper, ISBN:88-7653-117-3. (Distributed by Loyola University Press, 3441 N. Ashland Ave., Chicago, IL 60657)


Ever so often, a book is published which changes the course of things. This is such a book. For approximately 30 years, commentaries on the gospel of John have elucidated the gospel from virtually every possible angle: Raymond Brown's superb Anchor Bible commentary, so theologically stimulating even if being too critically myopic; Leon Morris's evangelical effort, somewhat pedantic, but useful; Rudolf Schnackenburg's massive undertaking with its marvelous excurses; G.R. Beasley-Murray's recent reprise with its judicious, if sometimes bland, handling of the central issues. We appear to have run the gamut of commentaries using or responding to form and redaction criticism, while at the same time featuring the theological meaning of the fourth gospel. The gains from this fertile period have been more important than the loses. If commentators are still too much bound by the critical approaches of the past, nonetheless the theological riches of John have been unfolded thirty, sixty, a hundredfold.

Coincidentally, new ground has been plowed in several monographs. Robert Culpepper (Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel) has asked for a dramatic-literary approach to John. Paul Duke, one of Culpepper's students, has released a significant study of one such literary technique, Irony in the Fourth Gospel. And Peter Ellis has attempted to incorporate the new literary approaches into a brief and readable commentary (The Genius of John)—not always successfully. The new direction in Johannine studies is in literary and narrative technique; synchronic rather than diachronic approaches.

Enter Mlakuzhyil. The professor from Delhi, India has attempted to integrate the theological approach to the gospel with a careful analysis of its literary structure. His conclusions are refreshingly orthodox and conservative, i.e., ontic Christology and literary unity. The much controverted 21st chapter, regarded by many as a non-Johannine addendum, is defended as essential to the unity of the author's literary design. Although he leans towards a redactor as the source of chapter 21, Mlakuzhyil does not rule out the possibility that the evangelist himself wrote it. Unfortunately, his literary insight has not detected the parallels between chapter 21 and chapter 1 (in this reviewer's opinion, a strong argument for Johannine authorship of both), i.e., the discipleship motif ("follow me," 21:22 with 1:37,38,40,43) and the (re)commissioning of the disciples (i.e., John himself, Peter and Nathanael, 21:2 with 1:37,41,46-49). The focus on the disciples after the resurrection is central to John's story. The symmetry of their original call is duplicated in the post-resurrection encounter. As they are initially called against the background of the last Old Testament prophet (John the Baptist, chapter 1), so they are commissioned by the risen Christ to follow him into the eschatological era of the gospel and the church (chapter 21).

By painstaking analysis, Mlakuzhyil examines the Greek text of the gospel for literary patterns. His eye searches for: parallelism, key-word repetition, chiasm, inclusio. What he finds is convincingly outlined and, in most cases, compellingly argued.

The book begins with a thorough review of attempts to describe the structure of the gospel. This survey of the literature is exhaustive, enabling the reader to grasp the issues at stake, while noting the inadequacy of previous suggestions. Next, our author provides a chapter on criteria for the structure of John. Here is an excellent introduction to literary, dramatic and structural technique. If much of the vocabulary—inclusio, leitworter (key-word), hook-word, synthetic and antithetic parallelism, chiasmus, concentric—is new to the reader, Mlakuzhyil provides crisp definitions, pertinent examples and ample bibliography.

We have come to the heart of the book. Mlakuzhyil has analyzed the deficiencies of structures previously suggested; he has established the groundwork for his thesis by preliminary definition of terms together with pertinent illustrations. Now he applies his criteria to the structure of the gospel There are four basic sections to John: Introduction (1:1-2:11), Part I—the Book of Jesus' Signs (2:1-12:50), Part II—the Book of Jesus' Hour (11:1-20:29), Appendix (21). The overlap between Parts I and II is due to what Mlakuzhyil describes as a "bridge-section" (chapters 11 and 12). The symmetry and dramatic structure of each section is discussed, diagrammed and defended. Central to Mlakuzhyil's case is his work with the Greek text. Each conclusion he reaches is derived from his work with the original text. This is his great advance over previous research which all too often has depended on artificially imposed, thematic similarity. It may be noted that all the Greek is transliterated making it possible for even the industrious layperson to make use of the book.

Mlakuzhyil now elaborates this overall structure of the gospel with a 70-page detailed defense of his thesis. This material provides the meat of his case. Parallels are mapped in chapters 2-4, 5-10, 13-17 and 18-20. The most impressive of his arguments, in this reviewer's opinion, involve the symmetrical unity of chapters 2-4 (note the inclusion of location, i.e., "Cana" in 2:1 and 4:46). Some of his suggestions seem forced, i.e., the parallelism between the foot washing (13) and the high priestly prayer (17).

But Mlakuzhyil is not finished. He adds several marvellous theological discussions of major Johannine themes: Christ/Messiah, Son of God, signs/miracles, disciples, believing, (eternal) life. Finally, he synthesizes the results of all this preliminary work in a section entitled "Christocentric Theological Sketch in the Literary Structure." Here the rich Johannine theology is related to the literary structure and progress of the gospel. There are theological insights here which will enrich the preaching of the gospel at every point. In fact, this section is a model theological commentary on the entire gospel in nuce.

I cannot commend this volume too highly. It will change the way you preach and study the gospel of the beloved disciple. Although the price is high, the investment will be amply repaid in fresh insights into a favorite gospel. The volume is itself a commentary. Anyone returning to the gospel of John will return to Mlakuzhyil. I assure you that the volume will not gather dust on any pastor's shelf who is serious about drawing his congregation into the Christocentric drama of the fourth gospel. Buy it! You will not regret it!