Identity, Alterity, and the Gospel of John


In: Biblical Interpretation

Post-classical narratologies are beginning to appreciate the ways in which identity and alterity are central to narrative. The Gospel of John has long been considered an artistically crafted narrative, yet little scholarly attention has been given to the dialectical interplay of identity and alterity in the Gospel narrative, except as this dialectic forms part of a larger examination of postcolonial discourse in John. Using insights from Monika Fludernik’s “natural” narratology and Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, this article argues that issues of identity and alterity are pivotal to the Gospel of John, particularly in the Gospel’s rhetoric of belief and its anti-Jewish tenor and substance.


  • 5

    See Luke Timothy Johnson, “The New Testament’s Anti-Jewish Slander and the Conventions of Ancient Polemic,” Journal of Biblical Literature 108 (1989), pp. 419-41.

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  • 7

    Monika Fludernik, Towards a Natural Narratology (London/New York: Routledge, 1996), pp. 1-3. Classical narratology often adopts formalist or structuralist methods; for example, Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978); Mieke Bal, Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 3rd edn, 2009); Gerard Genette, Figures III (Paris: Seuil, 1972). On the distinction between classical and post-classical (or “post-structuralist”) narratology, see Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics (London: Routledge, 2nd edn, 2002), p. 142.

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  • 8

    Fludernik, Towards a Natural Narratology, pp. 1-2. “Natural” is defined as “unelicited conversational story-telling,” and the concept relies on discourse analysis in the Labovian tradition. See also William Labov, Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English Vernacular (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972).

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  • 11

    See Richard Bauckham, “Historiographical Characteristics of the Gospel of John,” New Testament Studies 53 (2007), pp. 17-36. I find Bauckham’s thesis largely convincing and note particularly that a generic assessment of the Fourth Gospel in broad historiographical terms does not detract from the literary presentation of the Gospel, or from the incorporation of diverse sub-genres within the Gospel itself. On the latter, see Harold W. Attridge, “Genre Bending in the Fourth Gospel,” Journal of Biblical Literature 121 (2002), pp. 3-21; George L. Parsenios, Departure and Consolation: The Johannine Farewell Discourse in Light of Greco-Roman Literature (Supplements to Novum Testamentum 117; Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2005). On the historicity of the Gospel of John, see Paul N. Anderson, Felix Just and Tom Thatcher (eds.), John, Jesus and History (2 vols.; Society of Biblical Literature Symposium Series; Atlanta: Scholars, 2007 and 2009).

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  • 12

    Fludernik, “Identity/Alterity,” p. 260.

  • 13

    Fludernik, “Identity/Alterity,” p. 260.

  • 14

    See Lionel Bailly, Lacan (Oxford: Oneworld, 2012), p. 207.

  • 15

    Fludernik, “Identity/Alterity,” p. 264.

  • 16

    Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I,” in Écrits: A Selection (London: Routledge Classics, 2001), pp. 1-7 (5).

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  • 17

    Sean Homer, Jacques Lacan (London/New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 25.

  • 18

    Sean Homer, Jacques Lacan (London/New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 52.

  • 19

    Sean Homer, Jacques Lacan (London/New York: Routledge, 2005), pp. 55-56. The phallus in Lacan’s thinking does not contain the literalness of Freud’s theory. It is a purely symbolic “object” that the Subject perceives the “other” to possess or to desire. The mother’s activities that take her away from the child concern the child, and the child begins to formulate the prospect that mother finds satisfaction in the figure of the father (or in her work, etc.). This powerful drive that removes the mother from the child is the phallus. As the child’s identity grows throughout life (and as a result of what Lacan calls “castration”), she or he will seek the “phallus” in l’objet petit a – objects which carry the function of the phallus (academia, institutions, possessions, wealth, people). These are “small others” (l’autre) in contrast to the Other (more of on this” presently).

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  • 21

    Bailly, Lacan, p. 68.

  • 22

    Bailly, Lacan, pp. 66-67.

  • 25

    Fludernik, “Identity/Alterity,” p. 264.

  • 27

    See Fludernik, “Identity/Alterity,” p. 264.

  • 29

    Fludernik, “Identity/Alterity,” p. 264.

  • 30

    Campbell, p. 203.

  • 31

    Campbell, pp. 92-93, 134.

  • 33

    Suzanne Keen, Empathy and the Novel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 168. Keen asks if empathetic connection with a novel’s characters automatically translates into actions of altruism in society. She shows that it does not. In fact, novel reading can be a kind of “no-strings-attached’ opportunity for feeling empathy without needing to “pay society back,” so to speak, with altruistic behavior.

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  • 34

    The quote is from Keen, Empathy, p. 168; see also Fludernik, “Identity/Alterity,” p. 264. The Freudian id and the Lacanian “unconscious” are not identical, but for the purposes of this section, the quote is still apt.

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  • 35

    Fludernik, “Identity/Alterity,” p. 264.

  • 36

    Fludernik, “Identity/Alterity,” p. 264.

  • 37

    See James Ressigue, The Strange Gospel: Narrative Design and Point of View in John (Leiden: Brill, 2001).

  • 40

    On this distinction, see Chatman, Story and Discourse, p. 151; see also R. Alan Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1983), p. 16.

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  • 43

    See, Ruth Edwards, “ΧΑΡΙΝ ΑΝΤΙ ΧΑΡΙΤΟΣ (John 1:16): Grace and Law in the Johannine Prologue,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 32 (1988), pp. 3-15.

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  • 46

    See Judith Lieu, “Us or You? Persuasion and Identity in 1 John,” Journal of Biblical Literature 127 (2008), pp. 805-819.

  • 49

    See Herbert Leroy, Rätsel und Missverständnis: Ein Beitrag zur Formgeschichte des Johan­nesevangeliums (Bonn: P. Hanstein, 1968). Leroy’s work considers the Gospel and its Sondesprache to be an example of catechesis, which forms and shapes the initiate into a new social role (cf. Meeks, “Man from Heaven”).

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  • 50

    J. Louis Martyn, History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel (New York: Harper & Row, 1968); idem., The Gospel of John in Christian History: Essays for Interpreters (New York: Paulist, 1979). Recently, John Ashton has argued in favor of at least a separation – if not an expulsion – from the synagogue on the part of the Johannine community, in “Second Thoughts on the Fourth Gospel,” in Tom Thatcher (ed.), What We Have Heard From the Beginning: The Past, Present and Future of Johannine Studies (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007), pp. 1-18.

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  • 53

    Chris Keith, “The Claim of John 7.15 and the Memory of Jesus’ Literacy,” New Testament Studies 56 (2010), pp. 44-63 (55). See Keith’s extensive notes on p. 55 for a bibliography of social memory theories.

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  • 54

    See Keith, “The Claim,” p. 56.

  • 55

    G. Mitchell Reyes, “Memory and Alterity: The Case for an Analytic of Difference,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 43 (2010), pp. 222-52 (223).

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  • 56

    Marinus de Jonge, Jesus: Stranger from Heaven and Son of God (trans. John E. Steely; Missoula: Scholars, 1977).

  • 57

    Meeks, “Man from Heaven,” p. 57.

  • 58

    See Kasper Bro Larsen, Recognizing the Stranger: Recognition Scenes in the Gospel of John (Biblical Interpretation Series, 93; Leiden: Brill, 2008).

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  • 59

    Andreas J. Köstenberger, John (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), p. 256. Raymond E. Brown disagrees with this view, arguing that the sense is “the law that you yourselves accept” (The GospelAccording to John [AB 29; New York: Doubleday, 1970], vol. 2, p. 341).

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  • 61

    Adele Reinhartz, Befriending the Beloved Disciple: A Jewish Reading of the Gospel of John (London/New York: Continuum, 2001), pp. 26-28.

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  • 62

    Fludernik, “Identity/Alterity,” p. 264.

  • 64

    Hall, “New Ethnicities,” p. 165.

  • 65

    See Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode (Gesammelte Werke, Band 1; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 6th edn, 1990). The application of Gadamer’s work to biblical studies is relatively new but extensive enough to be highly regarded. For an overview, see Rachel Nicholls, Walking on the Water: Reading Mt. 14:22-33 in the Light of Its Wirkungsgechichte (Leiden: Brill, 2008), pp. 1-28. See also the special volume on biblical reception-history in Journal for the Study of the New Testament 33 (2010).

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  • 66

    See Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (New York: London, 1997), p. 5. Butler uses Althusser’s theory of “interpellation” to examine the ways in which bodies are “called” into being through language. Using Althusser and Butler’s work to read early Jewish/Christian difference, see Daniel Boyarin, Border Lines: The Partition of Judeo-Chris­tianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).

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  • 67

    See the excellent work of Miri Rubin, Gentile Tales: The Narrative Assault on Late Medieval Jews (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), and Robert Chazan, Medieval Stereotypes and Modern Antisemitism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997). On the modern period, see in particular Heidi Kaufman, English Origins, Jewish Discourse and the Nineteenth-Century British Novel (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).

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  • 68

    See Rachel Jacobowicz, Jews and Gentiles: Antisemitism and Jewish Assimilation in German Literary Life in the Early Nineteenth Century (Frankfurt/New York: Bern, 1992). The visible difference of Eastern European Orthodox Jews also gave rise to anti-Semitism in Poland and Russia as well as in the countries to which Orthodox Jews emigrated; see Ben Gidley, “The Ghosts of Kishinev in the East End: Responses to a Pogrom in the Jewish London of 1903,” in Eitan Bar-Yosef and Nadia Valman (eds.), ‘The Jew’ in Late-Victorian and Edwardian Culture: Between the East End and Africa (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp. 98-112.

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  • 71

    See Saul Friedlander, Nazi Germany and the Jews, Volume 1: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939 (New York: Harper, 1997).

  • 72

    Reinhartz, “John,” p. 155.

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