Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Some Comments On The Structure Of John 17

TWH: I have a discourse analysis published in Eleutheria dealing specifically with John 17. That passage of Scripture is rich in theology and gives people an interesting peak into the prayer life of Jesus of Nazareth. Of course, for some people the historicity of that prayer is more than suspect. For many scholars today that engage in historical Jesus research, that prayer is no more than a product of a highly-evolved, theological view of Jesus. For me, however, it is inspired by God and represents exactly what transpired as Jesus concluded the passover celebration with his disciples.

Here is how my discourse analysis begins:
"Not every word is equal in a sentence with regard to its force, focus, and the attention it demands. Not every verb in a discourse unit shares the same amount of weight and prominence. Silva has used the illustration of a chessboard with its pieces distributed. He suggests that the location of each chess piece on the board may not actually reflect the state of a particular match. Instead, he says, 'there is a dynamic relationship among the pieces that reveals the true ‘meaning’ of the game.' Moreover, 'analyzing its individual components without reference to their place in the linguistic system' is dangerous. Building upon his illustration, it would not do justice to the game of chess to consider that each piece is equally important. The loss of one's rook or one's queen is a devastating blow in the game of chess, more so than the loss of one’s pawn. The requests in prayer genre, especially in John 17, must carry, like the rook or queen, more weight, especially in determining the structure of the passage, than supportive material."
If you're interested, you can read the entire article here.

Structure matters when we study the New Testament. It really does. We want to explain how texts fit together and how they build and progress. John 17 is quite a remarkable example of how we can miss what the text actually says because we have built a structure around the passage that the author never really intended. Most people will divide John 17 in the following way: (1) Jesus prays for himself; (2) Jesus prays for his disciples; (3) Jesus prays for his future disciples. Now remember what I shared above from my article on John 17. Different pieces have different weight in discourse.

I argue in my article that the requests are actually the mainline material found in John 17. All other material is important, but it is secondary. The main thrust of a prayer like the one we find in John 17 is what the speaker is asking for. It is a petitionary prayer through and through. There are elements where Jesus speaks about himself and gives an account to the Father for his faithfulness in the work that was given to him. But throughout the prayer Jesus is asking the Father to perform certain tasks, in light of his approaching crucifixion and departure from the world.

There are five requests in Jesus' prayer, and the prayer concludes with a final commitment. One of the things I've noticed about the artificial structure (Jesus prayed for himself, Jesus prayed for his disciples, Jesus prayed for future disciples) is that people remember the structure, but at the end of the day they remember little to nothing about Jesus actually prayed for. We miss the one thing that Jesus prayed for twice. We miss the only verb in the future tense (the final commitment) that functions as the absolute apex of the entire prayer; Jesus, though approaching "the hour of darkness," is resolved to accomplish one thing for those who believe in him, something that is huge when it comes to Christian theology, especially eschatology.

Take a look at the article. I think it makes a case for reevaluating how we understand the structure of John 17, and it does so in a way that helps us focus more on the content of the pericope, not just the participants. 

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