Thursday, June 17, 2010

Steve Motyer reviews Bennema's Encountering Jesus

The original pdf of this review, for LST InSight, can be read here. I simply add that Cor REALLY knows what he is talking about when it comes to the Gospel of John!

Paternoster 2009, £14.99, pp213, ISBN 978-1-84227-666-2

It is great to see our former students producing books that will really make a difference in biblical scholarship! Cor Bennema, who – after completing both his undergraduate training and his PhD at LST – now teaches New Testament at the South East Asia Institute of Advanced Christian Studies in Bangalore, has produced a book which will advance johannine studies in significant ways. And it's also a great read for anyone who wants to understand the 'characters' in John's Gospel better.

How should we study 'characters' in the Bible – or indeed in any ancient text? One of the real advances in Cor Bennema's study is his attention to this methodological question, and his careful construction of an answer to it. The full technical details are in a long article published simultaneously in the journal Biblical Interpretation, but he summarises the discussion and his approach here in an introductory chapter, and then has 23 short chapters applying his approach to characters in the Gospel – usually individuals, but some composite characters like 'the world', 'the Jews', 'the crowd' and 'the twelve'. Then, in a concluding chapter he summarises his results and draws conclusions about what the characters might represent for modern readers.

Cor shows that all the johannine characters are there to illustrate various responses to Jesus – and he shows well how varied and subtle the range of responses is, even though they can all be called either 'adequate' or 'inadequate', from John's perspective. Cor classifies the characters on a spectrum from 'types' (simple, flat characters just representing one response), to 'personalities' (characters with some real personal depth), to 'individuals' (real people we can imagine meeting and understanding). One of the real gains of his study is that, whereas previously scholars have tended to view John's characters as cardboard cut-outs with little depth, Cor's analysis leads us to see new depths in them: of the 23, only eight are just 'types'. All the rest have aspects of 'personality', and three characters (Pilate, Judas and Peter) qualify as 'individuals', with considerable complexity in their portrayal.

This is a great book, written with great attention to detail but with a light and readable touch, a compelling style and solid skills in argumentation, as well as with a winsome eye to contemporary application. I think that Cor could have reflected a little more on what he brings, as a personal reader, to the analysis of these persons: alongside the textual and historical analysis, in what ways does he see them clearly also because he relates to them, person-to-person, as he reads? And if this is the case, is his reading devalued, or not? I missed this hermeneutical reflection. But the wonderful value of this book is not in the least undermined because he avoids pushing my hermeneutical buttons in this respect!

Reviewed by: Steve Motyer, Theology & Counselling Course Leader and Lecturer in New Testament and Hermeneutics, LST Cornelis Bennema, Associate Professor of New Testament at the South Asia Institute of Advanced Christian Studies, Bangalore, India (LST 1992-1995 and 2001)


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