Rarely can one book meet the needs of many diverse audiences. Craig Koester's text meets the challenge. The author takes on a topic that immediately engages the reader's imagination and presents a topic of great expanse. Still, when one reaches the end the imagination continues to ponder and a sense of satisfaction ensues such that the reader wants to say, "Truly, a job well done!"
Two questions frame Koester's study of symbolism is John's Gospel. The first question concerns how people know God. And the second question examines, "how particular things can have broader or even universal significance." After identifying what is new in this second edition the author considers the nature of symbols and their meaning in general as well as their particular use in Johanine literature and context.
With this first chapter the reader immediately appreciates how Koester presents the very best of solid academic scholarship in a very readable manner. The extensive footnotes detail the variety and reputation of his research in a way that whets the appetite of his peers. References are drawn from classic and contemporary authors. At the same time the notation in no way distracts from a straight-forward reading of the text.
The next two chapters take up the themes of representative figures and symbolic actions. The latter offers a detailed examination of the "Sign Stories" preceding the Book of Glory in John's Gospel. The representative figures include such characters as Nicodemus, the Samaritan Woman, Peter, Mary Magdalene, Judas and Thomas. He also identifies the crowds of Galilee and Jerusalem as representative figures. While the chapter on signs concludes with a consideration of Hearing, Seeing and Believing in the Johanine tradition, the chapter on representative figures explores the Word of God and the human condition.
Subsequent chapters address the theme of light and darkness as well as the significance of water symbolism throughout the gospel. Another chapter carefully details the abundance of symbolism portrayed in relation to the death of Jesus. Koester continues the same careful methodology of identifying the elements to be considered and then systematically takes up each issue. One sees throughout the text the work of a teacher identifying the topic, explaining the topic and then summarizing the topic. And the author completes this task in a way that gives the reader a sense of achievement; a considered new understanding.
Following the subtitle Koester explores the function of John's community in forming and being formed by the gospel symbols. The author develops the notion that the multivalent character of the symbols allow for the genuine possibility for unity in a diverse group of people. Certainly the symbol cannot mean whatever an individual might like it to mean. Light does not speak of sin. At the same time light can be a guiding force along the way, the journey's end or the symbol of belief. The full range of symbols in their multivalent character holds the possibility of holding together great diversity. Koester sees all of this held together in the symbolic action of foot washing. The disciple lives in relationship with Jesus through a relationship of service to the community of disciples.
Returning to the original question Koester concludes his study. How do people know God? He explores how people are invited to come to Jesus, to know God through Jesus in whom one can see the Father, and finally to believe that the Father is in Jesus and Jesus is in the Father. The ultimate question moves the disciple beyond knowing to believing. This faith is eternal life for such believing enables the disciple to follow the One who is the Way, the way that leads to the cross, the way that leads from death to life.
Anyone with a keen interest in John's Gospel should take up Koester's book. It could serve well as an undergraduate text and just as well for the seminarian or graduate student. Pastors and educated readers outside of an academic setting would likewise benefit and enjoy a leisurely reading of the text. It is truly, "a job well done!"