Monday 24 November 2008

David S. Dockery on John 4

David S. Dockery, ‘Reading John 4:1-45: Some Diverse Hermeneutical Perspectives’, Criswell Theological Review 3.1 (1988), 127-40.

Dockery begins (128-30) with some general and well-worn observations on John 4 – the contrasts between the Samaritan woman and Nicodemus; the structure of the passage in terms of the dialogue between Jesus and the woman on water (4:6-18) and worship (4:19-26), and the dialogue between Jesus and the disciples (4:31-38) set between two paragraphs describing the witness of the woman to her own people (4:27-30, 49-45).

He also highlights some of the challenges facing interpreters of John 4 – the importance of taking into account background, the intended audience, the issue of historicity, and the identification of genre (130-32).

The bulk of the article, however, looks at John 4 from the three perspectives of (1) an author-oriented approach, (2) a text-oriented approach, and (3) a reader-oriented approach (132-38).

The author-oriented approach ‘seeks to discover what the text meant in the mind of the original author for the intended audience’, seen as threefold in this case: ‘to proclaim the gift of the “living water”… to prioritize the worship of the Father “in Spirit and in truth,” and… to explain the mission to non-Jews’ (132).

The text-oriented approach (133-35) ‘focuses upon the text, its context and broader biblical texts’ and highlights such features as irony and double meaning in the story (who is giving what kind of water to whom?), parallels with John 19, and intertextual links to Old Testament stories which follow a similar pattern in which a man meets a woman at a well. This last feature, though long-recognised, remains highly suggestive. In Old Testament accounts (e.g., Gen. 24:10-61; 29:1-20; Exod. 2:15-21), the pattern is that: (1) a man is travelling in a foreign land; (2) he goes to a well; (3) he meets there a maiden; (4) water is given; (5) the women hurries home to tell; (6) the man is invited to stay; (7) a betrothal is concluded. In John 4, Jesus (the bridegroom, 3:29) ventures into a foreign land, meets a woman at a well… except, of course, this woman is no maiden – having been married five times already and currently living with a man not her husband.

The reader-oriented approach, for Dockery, embraces allegorical, existential, pastoral, and feminist perspectives (135-38).

On the issue of how the three approaches relate, Dockery makes a distinction between exegesis (which is limited to the authorial level) and hermeneutics (which seeks to understand the meaning of the text for contemporary readers, and thus considers the other two levels) – the key being whether the ‘meanings’ in levels two and three are ‘consistent developments of the author’s purpose’ in level one (139, his italics).

Apart from its brevity, Dockery’s essay is twenty years old now, and thus lacks the nuance of subsequent discussions in hermeneutics. Even so, it provides a helpful reminder to take account of the three ‘worlds’ of the text along with some application of those concerns to John 4.


Anonymous said...

Is he right? Is level 2 not part of the exegetical task?

Anonymous said...

Hi Conrad – The way he frames it and the examples he uses, yes, I think it is.