Colleen M. CONWAY. John and the Joannine Letters. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2017. pp. 188. $29.99 pb. ISBN-13: 978-1-4267-6639-8. Reviewed by Dolores L. CHRISTIE, Shaker Heights, OH 44122


As a reader who loves to wander windy roads dotted with centuries of Johannine literature, I never expected a volume labeled modestly “Core Biblical Studies” to yield much fresh and new: been there, done that. Certainly an introductory text would be boring. I was pleasantly surprised by this new work. The author not only presents the cogent research clearly and accessibly, she offers several fresh insights and approaches.

In five meaty chapters Conway introduces the Johannine literature, beginning with an in-depth consideration of the gospel itself. The final chapter looks more directly at the three epistles of John and their connections to the gospel. Footnotes, many with additional content rather than simply references, are clustered at the end. Clearly the author knows the work. She lays out the predictable scholarly arguments about origins, authorship, and ideology. Nevertheless her discussion never becomes soporific.

The first chapter suggests that the reader take a quick dive into the texts of both gospel and epistles, to consume them in a quick gulp, but with a critic’s discerning palate. The author offers exploratory questions to woo the novice into the main themes. What are the claims about the Word? Who are the characters and how do they function?  What does the phrase, “the Jews,” connote? What is the connection of the gospel to the three epistles attributed to “John?”

In the succeeding chapters Conway explores the historical puzzles of the gospel, its literary design, theology, and ideology. Especially interesting is the comparison of the text with literary devices contemporary to its writing. Following Kasper Bro Larsen, she details formulaic Greek drama “recognition narratives” used by the gospel author. Characters in a play, in this case the gospel, meet someone who is unfamiliar to them. Something in the interchange prompts an “aha” moment: the stranger is recognized as someone known (by name). An emotional response, often with a move to physical contact, follows. (See the post-resurrection encounters of Jesus with Mary Magdalene and Thomas, for example.) Many parts of John seem more a stage play than a prose narrative. Even the main character, Jesus, is hard to “recognize” as who he really is.

One of the painful issues in John is its supposed anti-semitism. Conway explores this topic in depth. “The Jews,” a term she places in quotes, is the gospel writer’s designation for those who oppose Jesus─not the entire race. Almost the entire gospel cast─good guys and bad─is in fact Jewish. Jesus himself is portrayed as observant, participating in the serial Jewish festivals during his ministry.

Drawing on recent scholarship, Conway explores the ideological dissonance of the gospel in light of twenty-first century thinking. The importance of female characters, the feminizing of Jesus as the Logos (in Greek a feminine noun), the “colonial” notion of a binary vision of society or universe that gnostic aromas in the gospel suggest, are all discussed. A short review cannot explore in depth the multiple interesting issues the author raises.