Stephen A. HUNT, D. François TOLMIE, & Ruben ZIMMERMAN. Character Studies in the Fourth Gospel: Narrative Approaches to Seventy Figures In John. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 2016, pp. xxii, 724. ISBN 978-08028-7392-7. First Published by Mohr Siebeck, Tubingen, 2013. Reviewed by Christopher RUPERT, S.J., LaStorta Jesuit Residence, 2320 Liverpool Rd., Pickering, ON L1X 1V4.


Character Studies in the Fourth Gospel (CS4G) is for biblical scholars and students a ‘must read’ groundbreaker. It illustrates the value of teamwork for subjects that require interdisciplinary input and different points of view.  With the input of Literary Analysis techniques to study character presentation, construction, and reader-concerns, CS4G takes us beyond the usual foci of biblical analysis: word meanings, text accuracy, relation to ancient literature, and archaeological evidence. These methods, new to biblical study, assist the 44 contributors to open fresh horizons without confessional bias.

The volume has four very useful indices: contributors, biblical references, modern authors cited, and subjects. Additionally, there is a table on the characters in the 4th Gospel listed by order of appearance, the scenes they are in, the text locations of those scenes, and the characters with whom they interact.

The character figures selected for analysis are often collective such as “the Jews”, or the parents of the man born blind. Others may be minor such as the steward at Cana, or the temple police. Many are key such as Martha, or the Mother of Jesus and the Beloved Disciple. In all there are seventy, and dealt with in order of their first appearance in the text of the Fourth Gospel.  All research presentations stick to data internal the 4th gospel; data external to it are always labeled as such.
Direct articles related to the deity, the persons in the Trinity, and Jesus himself are excluded. (These depend on theology, an area beyond the scope of CS4G.)

Each of the 62 short chapters introduces its method for character study, a brief history of research on that character (if extant), the raw data related to the character in terms of narrative occurrences, actions, and speech, and finally to engage in a character analysis, often with the significance of that character both in the text and in the reader’s own life. Countervailing views to the ones held by the author of each piece are mentioned, explained, and footnoted. Thus, the volume avoids a perennial pitfall underlined by Leonardo da Vinci, “The greatest deception men suffer from is their own opinions.” (Leonardo da Vinci, Notebook XIX).

This method of presentation guarantees a wide audience appeal be it to a casual reader, scholar, pastor, or student.

To recapitulate: each essay has five parts: the topic, the method, its application, conclusion, value for believer. The countervailing views, past and present, cited in these 62 essays remind me that ‘Criticism is a metaphor for the act of reading.” (PMLA 93, p. 463 quoting Paul de Man.)
CS4G was first published in German (2013) by a study group in the Society of Biblical Literature for their own scholarly audience. Its English translation (2016) presumes the reader knows a little Greek and does not translate German citations.  These are minor handicaps.

Every essay is memorable and without polemic. Even put-downs of older flawed work are charitable. Susan E. Hylen: The disciples: The “Now” and “not Yet” of belief in Jesus, with reference to the whole 4th gospel text shows that yesteryears’ concentrations on small pericopes may miss discontinuities in modes of characterization.

For flavor – some chapter choices picked at random: Steven Hunt, ‘The Roman Soldiers at Jesus’ Arrest, highlights the value of intertextual analysis to corroborate what is only sketched. Gail O’Day’s essay on Martha confronts the difficulty to separate reading from conjecture. D. François Tolmie’s piece on Pontius Pilate illustrates where unsubstantiated value judgments have led us astray in the past. Very interesting is Stephen A. Hunt, “The Men of the Samaritan woman.” He outlines various possibilities regarding their relationship with the Samaritan women at the well at the same time setting limits on the possibilities conjectured by that story – an effort that relies on Hunt’s knowledge of customs prevailing in Jesus’ day. It is a fun read in the realm of speculative guesswork but kept within its sitz im leben.  Controversy is met head on without taking sides. Two examples: ‘The identity of The Bridegroom at Cana where ‘ignorance is bliss’ by Edward W. Klink III makes us think twice (Could it be Jesus?). Another:  Ruben Zimmerman, “The Jews”: Unreliable Figures or Unreliable Narration?’ puts to rest accusations that the 4th gospel is anti-Jewish.

I highly recommend Character Studies in the Fourth Gospel.  Northrop Frye, a great literary critic, declared: “Books are like a picnic to which the author brings the words, and the reader brings the meaning.” CS4G is a fine picnic. Its protocols harvested from literary analysis enrich one’s talents for critical reading and appropriation. Thank you SBL contributors, and, in particular, Stephen, François, and Ruben.