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The relevance of social history to the interpretation of the Gospel according to John

U. Busse

Verbum et Ecclesia; Skrif en Kerk: Vol 16, No 1 (1995), 28-38. doi: 10.4102/ve.v16i1.436

Submitted: 20 September 1995
Published:  20 September 1995


The relevance of social history to the interpretation of the Gospel according to John

The relevance of a socio-historical reading of John's Gospel is illustrated through the analysis of John 2:1-11, 8:33-36 and 21:7. In each case a social senario of a particular situation is presented by utilizing different ancient sources. The results are then applied to the mentioned passages in John's Gospel in order to illustrate the relevance of a socio-historical reading of John.

Although exegesis has once more renewed its interest in ancient social historyl, one gets the impression that the Gospel according to John2 has remained untouched by this most welcome development. It is certainly true that the Gospel and Acts of Luke and Paul's correspondence3 are the most rewarding objects of research. Nevertheless, there is also a large number of texts in the other scriptures that would become considerably more accessible if a socio-historical comment were to be added. The metaphoric "text-world" of John's Gospel, for instance, if seen against the background of social history, reveals the complex associations that the lecture of this text would have evoked in the original reader. Thus the "world of the reader" is illuminated brighter than ever. An "I-am-word" in which Jesus claims to be the Bread of Life (John 6:35), for example, is based on a real life experience that today's reader in Old Europe cannot easily follow, because he can readily obtain his bread from the bakery every morning. However, as soon as Peter Garnsey's4 essay is consulted for the understanding of this text, the "textworld" becomes more vivid and reaches out to the first reader, asking him to associate the word with his own dailybread- experience and to consider the soteriological relevance of the statement. In this way, id est through the reader's adding his own experience to the assertion, the theological value of the statement Jesus makes, according to John, namely to be able to satisfy man's basic needs, is also communicated on an emotional level.In this paper I would like to discuss the great importance of this approach with regard to the exegesis of the Gospel according to John. To exemplify my point of view I have chosen the less imposing but, in my mind, nevertheless fundamental topic of the lower services. It belongs to the semantic field of "slavery", namely "service", and mainly appears in the story of the marriage at Cana, in chapter 8, in the extensive farewellscene and in the final chapter, chapter 21. I shall accordingly deal with those passages consecutively. However, I shall only touch upon the farewell speeches in passing.

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