John’s Gospel: Trial, Testimony, Structure, and Minor Characters
John’s Gospel is a gospel of trial and testimony.Trials take place: Jesus on trial, his followers on trial, the world on trial, the Pharisees on trial, the Jews on trial, the reader on trial – it is a book of trials.It is also a book of testimony – legal witness that Jesus is whom he says.There is verbal testimony (truly truly I say to you…) and there is visible testimony (miracles/signs). John’s Gospel contains word and work evidence that Jesus is who he says he is.If you remember from earlier posts, Andrew Lincoln is a great source for this trial/testimony theme in John’s Gospel (Trial and Testimony [Peabody: Hendrickson, 2000] as well as The Gospel According to Saint John [Peabody: Hendrikson, 2005]).
Not only is John’s Gospel a gospel of trial and testimony, it is also a narrative masterpiece.There is irony, humor, sarcasm, metaphor, word-play, story, character, conflict, resolution, etc.There are seven minor characters closely associated with Jesus’ words and signs (Jesus’ mother, the royal official & his son, the lame man, Peter, the blind man, Lazarus [including Mary & Martha], and Jesus’ mother once again at the cross).In a helpful article on these seven minor characters and the narrative aspect of John, James Howard argues that these seven drive the narrative along while emphasizing several key Johaninne motifs (belief, unbelief, glory, death, etc.).Howard’s article is good, but he doesn’t draw out the trial and testimony motif enough.
I would add to Howard’s list, following Lincoln, that these seven minor figures are also used by John as witnesses.They are actual and literary witnesses to the veracity of Jesus Christ and his own self-testimony.The minor figures sit on the witness stand of this cosmic trial, proving that Jesus is indeed who he said he was.Jesus is the light of the world: the blind man sees.Jesus is the good shepherd, who, like YHWH in the OT, heals and brings his sheep home: the sick son and lame man are healed.Jesus is the resurrection and life: Lazarus comes out of the tomb after 4 days of death.The list goes on.John brilliantly weaves these witnesses into the overall narrative structure of the gospel, so that as different witnesses take the stand, the reader is more and more convinced that Jesus is the I AM, the Messiah promised long ago, the true Son of God.There is progression in this trial: as it moves on, the witnesses become more convincing, the prosecutors become more hostile, and Jesus ultimately dies and rises again, which is the capstone of all witness, proving that his testimony is undoubtedly true.In all of this there is trial irony: Jesus and his followers are on trial the whole way through, while in the end through his death and resurrection he is the judge who puts unbelievers on trial.There is a divine table-turning as the accused becomes the accuser.
John can do this – he did actually witness these events, after all.Further, he wrote the gospel so that the readers believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God – and that by this faith they may have life in his name (John 20.31).Every drop of evidence proves as much.John could have given more testimony, but guided by the Spirit he chose just this testimony and ordered it just so for the purpose that we believe it, so the testimony frees us because it is the truth. The minor characters as John uses them serve the purpose of testimony so that by our trust in this testimony we are not in the dock, but with Christ, cleared from all guilt.
The article mentioned above is James Howard, “The Significance of Minor Characters in the Gospel of John” Bibliotheca Sacra 163 (2006): 63-78.