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Travels Through And Beyond Time In The Gospel Of John

Voyager dans et hors du temps dans l’Évangile de Jean
Viaje a través y más allá del tiempo en el Evangelio de Juan
Marie-Ange Rakotoniaina


La présente étude offre un parcours littéraire et temporel de l’Évangile de Jean afin d’explorer les formes d’(a)temporalité qu’il crée. L’analyse porte sur trois modes temporels (narratologique, historique et théologique/spirituel) afin de dégager les manières dont l’évangile construit différentes conceptions du temps (linéaire et cyclique) qu’il tend à dépasser. La construction se voit au service d’une négation qui fonde le génie littéraire de la parole du Christ devenue texte. L’article élabore dans une première partie la linéarité de la fréquence des signes visant à illuminer l’identité du Christ et la réalité du royaume prêché. Dans un second temps, l’étude explore la temporalité de la célébration de l’Ego christologique, en particulier dans les discours d’adieu (Jean 14-17). Enfin, ces deux étapes permettent de définir le passage de la parole au texte comme inhérent à la nature même des discours du Christ entendus comme esprit et vie. Ce passage de la parole au texte, de l’écriture devenant esprit et vie définit une incarnation textuelle, qui, une fois consommée, ouvre des horizons nouveaux d’(a)temporalité.

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1We hope to demonstrate how the Gospel of John creates forms of (a)temporality through the construction and negation of time. In light of early Christian conceptions of time in their Greco-Roman and Jewish contexts, this paper contributes to reflecting how Christian history-writing (long before Augustine of Hippo’s City of God and Eusebius of Caesarea’s Ecclesiastical History) demonstrates an innovation in its construction of time in relation to memory and the present, and how this construction of time may point to its own negation.

2To explore the convergence of time and its negation, our investigation owes much to Eve-Marie Becker’s reflections on the shaping of earliest Christian historiography. In The Birth of Christian History (2017), she traces various analogies between the “literary and religious memory” (p. 15) of New Testament texts with the historiographical rhetoric of classical and early Roman imperial cultures. Her “monograph seeks to show how the earliest Christian writings–dating back to the first and second centuries CE–have shaped “Christian” thinking and writing about history by conceptualizing memory, narrativizing the remembrance of the past, and transforming these remembrances of the past into the kind of prose that constitutes a history-based perception of time” (p. 9). It appears from this claim that history-writing may be envisioned as a literary act itself. Early Roman imperial historiography was not only “a temporal and intellectual endeavor, but it was also a literary one: representations of the past were oriented toward the political, ethical and religious purview(s) of the present” (p. 9). Historically-constructed time thus stands at the foundation of the literary construction(s) of Christian identities and communities through the Gospels. The following investigation both draws from and responds to these conclusions defining the Gospels as creative participants in the early Roman historiographical culture.

  • 1 Paul Ricœur also asserted that the Gospel of John belonged to the historiographical genre: « Du poi (...)

3Building upon Becker’s analysis, the method of the present paper addresses the literary, religious and historical dimensions of time in the Fourth Gospel. One major mode of inquiry consists in reading John as a literary composition, thus exploring the language and semantics of time in the Johannine narrative in light of its complex relation to the historiographical genre. From Becker’s analysis, our exploration presupposes the belonging of the Gospels to the Roman historiographical genre1 whose foundations were laid down by Herodotus (already in Cicero, De legibus I, 5; De oratore II, 55) and Thucydides, both the ancient fathers of history-writing in the Western world.

  • 2 Becker borrows the concept of counter-memory from Michel Foucault. Counter-memories are “discursive (...)

4Yet, our exploration seeks to further demonstrate how John differs from previous instances of Christian history-writing. The Fourth Gospel stands in sharp contrast with Lukan historiography, namely in its retelling of the Last Supper. John replaces the Lukan account of Jesus presenting the bread and the wine as his body and blood (in Luke 22) with the scene of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples (John 13). To Becker, this replacement is symptomatic of how John “presents a different type of ritual memory of the Eucharist (most likely derived from the Lukan account)” and how “John shapes a counter-memory.”2 She further asserts that “John both reflects on the relationship between history and memory as proposed in the Lukan Gospel concept and proposes revisions (…). In the time of the earliest Christians, the transmission and transformation of literary memory are continually challenged by the dynamic power of counter-memory. (…) the Johannine writer questions whether to reproduce the existing outline defined by Mark and Luke, or to reshape it once again” (Becker 2017, p. 20). Thus, it appears that the Gospel may reach the limits of the historiographical genre itself, or at least bears the possibility of surpassing the literary conventions of the genre. The Johannine narrative is as much concerned with Christology (establishing claims about the authority and nature of Jesus as the eternal Son of God) as with history. In fact, Becker maintains, “In chapters 14ff., [John] replaces history with Christology as a counter-memorial attack on Lukan historiography” (Becker 2017, p. 146). Building upon this conclusion, the present investigation attempts to approach a history-based perception of time in John and asks whether it is reconcilable with a Christ-centered perception of time. In other words, this paper elaborates upon the possibility of defining the Fourth Gospel as history-writing centered upon (a)temporality. If, as Becker asserts, “John abrogates a perception of time based on linearity and causality” (p. 146), I wish to offer a reading of time in the Johannine narrative to demonstrate how the Fourth Gospel participates in the elaboration of a Christ-centered history that dwells in the very negation of the linearity of time.

5Besides its disagreement with Luke’s outline of the Last Supper narrative, there are two other manifestations of John standing at the limit of the historiographical genre. First, it becomes clear from the last chapters of the Gospel that the text slowly moves out of time for different reasons which the present paper will unveil. The farewell discourses (where history collapses and is reinvented) will have most of our attention between the construction and negation of time. These last words of Jesus perform a dialectic of revealing/concealing in John 14-17. As they also involve different levels of reading, they construct and engage various conceptions and experiences of time. Through this, the Gospel demonstrates transcendence over time, which takes the form of the (a)temporal domination of the present. Second, this transcendence over time invites another level of investigation. In the farewell speeches, it is the spoken word of Christ that one has to listen to, to decipher and to hear through what seems to be its antithesis: the written word–the text. And in this passage from the spoken word to the written text, history rises (and falls). Hannah Arendt once drew attention to the fact that the “task of the poet and historiographer (both of whom Aristotle still puts in the same category because their subject is πρᾶξις [action]) consists in making something lasting out of remembrance. They do this by translating πρᾶξις and λέξις, action and speech, into that kind of ποίησις or fabrication which eventually become the written word” (Arendt 2006, p. 44). It is the temporal consequences of this translation, of the textual fixation of the farewell discourses, that this investigation further seeks to unveil.

  • 3 He writes, “As a historian who tries to be attentive to his time, I have, like many others, observe (...)

6This reflection upon the domination of the present in John shows affinities with François Hartog’s investigations on time and history. Inspired by Arendt, Hartog pointed out how the articulation between past, present and future in societies depends upon cultural and historical factors (Hartog 2003 and 2015). In so doing, he advances the methodological tool of “regime of historicity” as such: “Speaking of a ‘regime of historicity’ is thus simply a way of linking together past, present, and future, or of mixing the three categories” (Hartog 2015, p. 15). The perception of time resulting from a distinctive dynamic of cultural, societal and historical components, each period reveals a specific way of perceiving and articulating its past, present and future. As Hartog defines the late 20th-century (post-1980s) “regime of historicity” as “presentism” (an “order of time” characterized by the omnipresence of the present)3, he reveals the questions that led him to this hypothesis: “For me ‘presentism’ was initially a hypothesis, which came with a series of questions: does our way of articulating past, present, and future have something specific to it, something which makes today’s present, here and now, different from previous presents?” (Hartog 2015, p. 17-18). Hartog’s problematics may be applied to the Gospel of John. The originality of the Johannine narrative lies in its manifestation of a variety of articulations between past, present and future. In the text (and beyond) lie a construction of time that also points beyond itself. It is this construction (and its negation) that this paper seeks to unveil by way of a rhetorical and literary analysis attending to the historical contexts of the Johannine communities.

7In exploring the Gospel’s articulation of different categories of temporalities (past, present and future), I will delineate three modes of analysis: narratological, historical and theological. These three modes will open three trails of exploration. First, the narratological approach explores how the location and contents of Jesus’ farewell speeches to his disciples (John 14-17) mark both a continuity and a rupture with the surrounding Johannine narrative. The temporality of the narrative (or diegetic temporality) must then be analyzed in light of the historical context of the Johannine community. This second historical temporality further fashions a third temporality: that of the construction and practice of Christian theology within the deployment of Christian revelation. Thus, applying a literary analysis to John’s narrative is to be done with attention to the theological claim the content of the Gospel makes about the Word (Jesus) in relation to John’s conception of time. Because a text cannot be separated from its historical context of composition and reception, the analysis will also turn to the historical context of a Gospel born in first-century Roman Palestine.

8Applying these modes of analysis of temporality, I will first treat the linear frequency of signs in the Gospel of John. As a whole, the Gospel’s narrative functions as the concealing/revealing of signs expressing Jesus as the Messiah. These signs occur in specific moments in the narrative. One may read the farewell discourses as the culmination of the disclosing of their meaning(s) to the disciples. Secondly, the exploration will turn to the celebration of the Christological Ego. In this section, we investigate how the description of Jesus as the Word incarnates the negation of time, as the farewell discourses echo the Word out of time in the Gospel’s prologue (John 1). Finally, attending to the context of the Johannine community will unveil the textual incarnation of the word as the discursive and historical processes through which writing becomes spirit and life. These processes open new experiences and horizons of (a)temporality.

The Linear Frequency of Signs

Responding to the Word, (Mis)interpreting Signs

  • 4 Unless otherwise noted, all biblical quotations come from Coogan, Brettler, Newsom, Perkins et al., (...)

9On the level of narratological temporality, the Gospel of John exposes the linearity of the process of unveiling signs. Signs are more than miracle stories, though the first of them occurs at the wedding in Cana. The narrative text states that Jesus turning water into wine was “the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and [he] revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (2: 11).4 These signs point to the identity of Jesus as the Messiah and the reality of the kingdom. As such, they may be miracle stories as well as speech-events, actions as much as words that call for a decoding.

10The Johannine narrative functions as the concealing/revealing of these signs that occur in specific moments in the narrative. When Jesus meets the Pharisee Nicodemus and announces that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (3:3), he encounters the Jewish leader’s misunderstanding, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” (3:4). When, in the following chapter, Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well and tells her that “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty” (4:13-14), she does not understand that he does not mean physical water. As touching and innocently honest as it is, her response sparks with misinterpretation: “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water” (3:15). To the motif of water echoes the motif of bread. Having proclaimed that God the Father grants the true bread from heaven (6:32-33), the crowd replies in words that resemble the Samaritan woman’s response, “Sir, give us this bread always” (6:34). The spoken word of Christ thus performs a dialectic of concealing/revealing and invites to a double level of reading. Jesus’ act of speaking reveals as much as it conceals. This dialectic involves and plays with a linear conception of time that the Gospel discloses in the twelfth chapter.

Predicted Misunderstanding or Playing with Linear Temporality

11John 12 gives the hermeneutical key to the relation between the performance of signs and temporality with a quotation from Isaiah 6 and 53. After having invited the crowd to believe in the light to become children of light (12:35-36), the Light Himself departs and hides (12:36). Yet, this concealing of the light opens a moment of reflection upon the mitigated success of his performance of signs, “Although he had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him” (12:37). The Johannine narrator explains this failure as resulting from the fulfillment of a prophecy in Isaiah 53 and 6,

“This was to fulfill the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah:
‘Lord, who has believed our message,
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?’
So they could not believe, because Isaiah also said,
‘He has blinded their eyes
and hardened their heart,
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and understand with their heart and turn
and I would heal them.’
Isaiah said this because he saw his glory and spoke about him.” (Jn 12:38-40).

  • 5 For the temporality of reading, see the third section of the present paper.

12As a voice from the past, actualized in the performance of signs and its failure, the reference to the prophet Isaiah draws a connection between the spoken word of the Israelite prophet and the spoken word of Christ. This translation through time enacts the travel of the word through and beyond time. It contextualizes the surprising misunderstanding of the audience within a ‘what was’ or ‘what was meant to be.’ In their misinterpretation of the Word, the audience fulfills a sort of future past and actualizes in the time of John’s narrative a speech-event from centuries ago, yet still vivid in the historical and theological imagination of the Gospel’s author (and readers).5 The Johannine word has a trajectory similar to a line made of past expectation and predicted future, actualized through the narrative.

13At the closing end of the Gospel, the farewell discourses (chapters 14-17) stand as the culmination of the disclosing of signs to the disciples. The same dialectic of revealing/concealing appears. As Philip asks Jesus to show them the Father (14:8), one senses the same feeling of failure as with Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman or the crowd. A sense of surprise surfaces in Jesus’ response: “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?” (14:8). Surprise, because the intimate circle of disciples may have known better, more or deeper. Somehow, Philip failed to grasp the reality of Jesus that the linear process of performing signs throughout the narrative was to achieve. And in this failure emerges the need to look for another temporality. Jesus’ words point to this need in saying, “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you” (16:4). His full disclosing of his identity and mission to his disciples echo his nearing death.

14Yet, in the face of his coming absence, not everything may be said. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (16:12). Between the “still” and the “now,” the present carries a sense of incompletion. In fact, it is absence that will function as a catalyst for completion and revelation. What must be completed demands the absence of Christ for the Spirit to come and pursue the work of revelation (16:13). If uncertainty and misunderstanding fill the present moment, the future glows with the promise of certainty. But this promise may only be achieved within another conception of time that negates the linearity of signs’ unveiling.

The Celebration of the Christological Ego: the Word as Incarnating the Negation of Time

15The farewell speeches further crystallize a relation to time that is opposition to linear temporality through a specific kind of discourse: the celebration of the Ego of Christ. The word of Christ is often the result of challenges thrown by the crowd or hostile questions asked by the Jews, which gives to the entire text an air of judgment/defense. The iconic ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν (“Amen, amen, I tell you”) is often met with misinterpretation and challenges (see Jn 5). Yet, these challenges to the Logos, the uttered word of Jesus, become the occasion for the Johannine Christ to define his person and his mission along with the very essence of his discourse. The words of Jesus are spirit and life. “The words that I have spoken to you,” Jesus asserts, “are spirit and life,” (τὰ ῥήματα ἐγὼ λαλῶ ὑμῖν πνεῦμά ἐστιν καὶ ζωή ἐστιν, 6:63). It is as such that the farewell discourses should be understood. The words of Christ directly come from the Father and may be identified with His mind- a reality that his disciple Philip failed to realize. “The words that I say to you, Jesus replies, I do not speak of my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works” (τὰ ῥήματα ἐγὼ λέγω ὑμῖν ἀπἐμαυτοῦ οὐ λαλῶ, δὲ πατὴρ ἐν ἐμοὶ μένων ποιεῖ τὰ ἔργα αὐτοῦ, 14:10). These words participate in the demonstration of the relation Father-Son par excellence in an apologetic of dependence. In terms of their location within the Johannine narrative, the farewell discourses arrive at a moment of culmination of this Father-Son relation of dependence, before Jesus chooses to die, ending his speech with a prayer to his Father, a prayer that transcends time itself (Jn 17).

16In performing this Father-Son dependence, Jesus’ prayer further illustrates travel through and beyond time. He asks the Father, “So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed” (17: 5). The “now,” the present moment coalesces with the past “before the world existed.” Jesus’ prayer asks for an actualization of the past. This past is a dual one: it refers to the Johannine prologue (in terms of narratological temporality), and to the beginning when “the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God” (1:1-2, in terms of theological/spiritual temporality). Like a perfect cycle, the end (the coming death, the farewell discourse) has the purpose of demonstrating the beginning, a beginning that is out of time. In this demonstration, the farewell discourse reconstructs time in contributing to the creation of a new a-temporal foundation. For this founding moment is more than pre-creation or anteceding the historical/theological event of Incarnation (“And the Word became flesh and lived among us” 1:14). It points to the existential and eternal reality of Jesus as one with God and as the principle of all existence (“All things came into being through him” 1:3).

17The linearity of the performance of signs, whose end the farewell discourses constitute, collapses with the cycle of presentification of (a)temporality. I borrow here from Hartog’s terminology where presentification refers to the possibility of making the past present, (for instance via media technology and museums), in the context of presentism defined as “the sense that only the present exists, a present characterized by the tyranny of the instant and by the treadmill of an unending now” (2015, p. 15). To Hartog, the process of presentification that characterizes the post-1980s regime of historicity presupposes the engulfing of the distinction between past and present, and as thus, the end of history, if history relies upon the possibility of maintaining the past at a distance and recognizing its alterity. In a previous reflection on the links between types of temporality and authority, Hartog describes the Christian new conceptualization of the past along the model of praeparatio: “The past is overtaken, remaining unfinished, and is preserved only so far as it leaves itself open to interpretation in and by the present.” (Hartog 2011, p. 37). In this context, the Eucharist becomes a “commemoration of that which having taken place once and for all is now irreversibly past, and its repetition, realization, and presentification. So that, quite rightly, this past will never pass away, must never go by but will always remain present and active” (ibid). It is in this sense that the farewell discourses actualize the beginning, but this beginning has the peculiarity of standing out of time, of antedating creation itself. In this sense, the location of the farewell speeches marks both a continuity and a rupture with the surrounding Johannine narrative.

18As the result of a collapsing of the linearity past-present future (but has such a linearity ever existed in John?), the farewell discourses and the last prayer celebrate the Christological Ego in a manner that is not bounded by time. True, the farewell discourses occur at a moment when the Christological Ego has been reshaping the “I am” of Exodus. In Exodus 3:13-14, Moses hears the voice of God through the burning bush and asks what His name is. To which God responds, “I am Who I Am” (Exodus 3:14). Throughout the Johannine narrative, the statement “I Am” refers to the nature of Jesus and participates in the linearity of the deployment of the Word. “I am the bread of life (6:35), I am the good shepherd (10:11), I am the light of the world (8:12)” constitute as many assertions that are deployments travelling through the temporality shaped by history and the historical consciousness of the Jewish people. But these assertions also carry the seed of the surpassing of these temporalities.

19In travelling through and beyond time, the word exemplifies its “Spirit and Life” characters. It is precisely because it is not bounded by any temporality, but knows how to benefit from temporality, that the word actualizes itself as “Spirit and Life.” Indeed, this actualizing takes place within the historical time of the Gospel. In a recent article, Becker has once again asserted the belonging of the Fourth Gospel to the genre of ancient historiography. “In a similar way to how Mark and Luke can be seen in the broader framework of ancient historiographical literature, the Fourth Gospel also follows basic patterns of history-writing (…) Thus, in several ways, John follows the narrative concept of how to write an event-based and person-centered account of history–as found in Mark and Luke–which serves the memorizing of the past and the orientation in present and future time(s)” (Becker forthcoming, p. 1). Despite the complex relationship between John and history, and the possibilities of the Gospel to transcend historical time, the temporality of the historical context still leaves its mark upon the Johannine literary creation.

20One example of the surpassing of and benefit from these temporalities is the “I am the true vine” (Jn 15). In reifying the textual and visual memories, this Christological-Ego statement contributes to the historicization of a-temporality. The Fourth Gospel was composed in the setting of first-century Roman Palestine by ca. 90 CE. The text reflects knowledge of the “terrain, customs and ideology” of its Palestinian milieu, which is further confirmed by archaeological remains (Johnson 2010, p. 465). From the narrative, it appears that the Johannine community emerges from two traumatic events: its separation from the synagogue and the experience of martyrdom (De Boer 2018, p. 67) as shown in passages exemplifying and announcing conflicts with Jewish leaders (especially John 12 and 15:18-16:4, according to Martyn 1979). As De Boer maintains, “[t]hose circumstances point then to the post-Easter period, most probably the last third of the first century, after the disaster produced by the Jewish War of 66-73CE and in the midst of the rapid growth of (largely Gentile [non-Jewish]) Christian churches” (De Boer 2018, p. 68). Thus, the Johannine history is one of conflict and separation from the Jewish milieu, against the background of Jewish revolts against Rome. All these events constitute the historical milieu in which the Gospel first originated. It impresses into what Johnson calls “the very fabric of the Johannine symbolic world” (2010, p. 463).

21The vine belongs to a symbolic network in primitive Christianity and is a shared Jewish-Christian symbol. The symbol probably emerged from the primitive period of Judeo-Christianity, according to Jean Daniélou who investigated the primitive meaning of the vine in Jewish Christianity (Daniélou, 1961). At Dura-Europos, a Roman fortress in eastern Syria, the Jews of the synagogue may have glanced at this symbol on the central panel, while the first-century Christian community of Syria may remember its appearance in the Odes of Solomon, XI, 16-18, developing the motif of plantation:

And he led me away into his paradise,
where is the fullness of the Lord's delight.
I saw beautiful and fruit-bearing trees,
and their crown was grown naturally.
Their timber [flourished] and their fruits laughed.
From immortal earth [grew] their roots, and the river of joy watered them
and all around the earth of their eternal life.
I worshiped the Lord because of his glory
and said, Lord, blessed are those planted on the earth,
who have a place in thy paradise
and grow in the growth of thy trees,
turned from darkness to (the) light (trans. Lattke and Attridge, 2009).

  • 6 This network of textual and visual memories further confirms Eve-Marie Becker’s assertion that “As (...)
  • 7 Associated with Dionysian themes in Roman art, they are related to the iconographic tradition that (...)

22Should we accept the earliest dating of the Odes in the first century and its emergence from a Jewish-Christian milieu, they provide us with textual and visual memories from Judeo-Christianity for the motifs of the vine and plantation.6 Such a motif is also present in Judaism as a general symbol of abundance and fertility (Jensen 2000). In addition to Jewish-Christian textual memories, the proclamation “I am the true vine” (15:1) calls for Greco-Roman symbolic as well. Grapevines are among the most popular decorative motifs in Roman art and also common in early Christian contexts.7 As the Gospel is addressed to a community in Asia Minor and Syria (Zumstein, 2017c), one may imagine the circulation and knowledge of this imagery to the Johannine communities. Thus, John 15 incorporates historical temporal dimensions, in referring to the symbol of the vine. But chapter 16 soon transcends them.

23“I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling” (Jn 16: 1). In referring to future persecutions (“They will put you out of the synagogues… they will do this,” 16: 2-3), Jesus further merges the present moment of the spoken word (“I have said these things to you”) with the future. Jesus’ words place remembrance (of the present words) into the future: “so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them” (16: 3). These words locate the future hope in the remembrance of past words. They participate into an ongoing fulfillment where the present actualizes both the past and the future. This double actualization comes out in the different uses of “in a little while” that puzzles the disciples,

What does he mean by saying to us, ‘A little while and you will not see me, and again a little while and you will see me; and ‘Because I am going to the Father’?’ They said, ‘What does he mean by this ‘a little while’? (Jn 16:17-18)

24Jesus’ farewell speech in John 16 gazes upon the future (with the repetition of “the hour is coming” v. 2, 25, 32) while actualizing it. Jesus himself realizes it, “The hour is coming, indeed it has come” (16:32). Indeed, in Jesus, past, present and future are actualized, hinting at the temporality embraced by the Prologue and his coming death: “I came from the Father and have come into the world; again I am leaving the world and am going to the Father” (16:28). This trilogy past-present future is only apparent, for, to Jesus, the “again I am leaving” suggests a cycle from when the Word was out of time with the Father to when the Word is again out of time with the Father. As the Incarnate Logos, Jesus lives in and speaks from a distinct a-temporality, removed from that of the disciples and the crowd. The trilogy past-present future hints at its own surpassing through a Word that is eternally present. This eternal Presence is further made possible by writing.

How Writing Becomes Spirit and Life: Temporalities of Textual Incarnation

25“And the Word became flesh” (Jn 1:14). The mystery of Incarnation stands at the center of the message of the Gospel of John. Yet, the transmission of the mystery of God’s life taking human shape in Jesus would not have been possible without another form of incarnation. The eternal Word coming to dwell into a human being (1:10-11, 14) would not have given birth to earliest Christian communities gathering around a common faith in first-century Roman Palestine, if the Word had not become text. In other words, if the sayings of Jesus, the Incarnate Word, would not have been committed to writing, they would not have shaped the religious experiences of readers-believers. The present section seeks to unveil the (a)temporal horizons of this passage from Word to text, from the spoken discourse to writing, considering the (a)temporal conditions of its existence and the possibilities such a passage creates.

26The Gospel of John does assure the reader that Jesus’ words are spirit and life: “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (6: 63). In investigating how this spirit and life captured in writing and emerges from the narration, in the contents and location of the farewell discourses within the Johannine narrative, one can approach the rise and fall of intertwined temporalities. The last step of our investigation will attend to the relationship between the spoken word (orality) and writing. This relationship constructs a particular relation to time, which is contextualized in the historical and theological temporalities of the farewell speeches. The fluidity of the relationship orality/writing further defines discursive and historical processes through which writing becomes spirit and life. It is to these processes that one may now turn to define temporalities of textual incarnation of the word, with an eye to the variety of (a)temporal experiences and horizons that this incarnation opens.

Speaking, Writing and Timing

27The temporal nature of the dialectic concealing/revealing participates in the interaction between writing and speaking, inscribed in the paradox of a word now fixed in letters, of the translation of orality into writing (see Havelock 1986). This translation marks the entrance into another realm of temporality, into other temporal possibilities of memories and revelation. As Becker (2017) observes that instead of the distinction between the fidelity of orality to the past and the alteration of the past in the literary construction,

(…) it has been argued here that oral memory above all differs from written and literary memorization in its conceptual approach to the past: while oral memory constantly makes the past present, literary memory is not limited by temporality. The manner in which we comprehend the past has important consequences for the perception of time: in its already present (presentist) re-presentation of the past, oral memory implies a rather cyclic or static-that is, immobile-perception of time, whereas literary memory can provide a much more detailed (narrative) approach to diverse temporal settings and progressions. In other words, literary memory prepares for a distinctive perception of time in its temporal progress (p.13).

28Thus, she concludes, “historia as literary memory via narrative outstrips the constraints of oral memory and reveals itself as the ultimate mode of memoria.” (p.14). It is the temporality of writing stepping outside of these “constraints of oral memory” that the following section will now explore.

Toward Temporalities of Textual Incarnation

29One should not see the text as a prison, constraining our minds to what happens in the lines or between the lines; one could also read from the lines, or out of the lines as the text becomes the door and the embodiment of a historical and spiritual reality whose plurality defines the potentiality of different levels of temporality.

30The first level is the historical one. It may sound surprising that the eternal or the a-temporal domination of the present/Presence is made possible by historical circumstances. Yet writing the Johannine speeches (ca. 90 CE) participates in the shaping of a community whose destiny soon meets with external persecution. The Johannine community thus passes through several historical stages: following the exclusion from the synagogue and persecution, the followers of the Fourth Gospel’s message undergo an internal crisis, which calls for a stabilization. Through writing, the ambition of the spoken word is to take into consideration the theological, social and ecclesial repercussions of the first fratricide conflict between the Johannine community and the synagogue. In Jean Zumstein’s words, « À des chrétiens persécutés, ébranlés dans leur conviction, menacés dans leur statut social, l’évangile essaie de redire la pertinence de leur foi, de reconstruire leur identité religieuse en en montrant le bien-fondé » (1990, p. 99).

  • 8 Zumstein 1990, p. 95. As such, there is no historical determinism. In his reading of John, Zumstein (...)

31Then, passed the time of martyrdom, the text offers itself to the world in the second stage of stabilization in the history of the Johannine community at the dawn of the second century CE. The text had become the salvific answer to an internal crisis in the Johannine milieu in the same way that it was the source of the internal division of the community.8

L’Écriture fondatrice de ce milieu l’évangile joh[annique] n’est pas parvenue à sceller l’unité de foi de ces chrétiens. Au contraire, un conflit d’interprétation divise ce milieu et le mène à l’implosion. (…) L’école joh a perdu son combat ecclésial (Zumstein 1990, p. 95).

32In this sense, the Word that has become text carries the seed of both foundation and division. Despite this failure to reach unity, Zumstein envisions the last chapter (John 21) as concretizing the whole message of the Gospel. The epilogue operates the « mise en Eglise de l’évangile ». The textualization of the Word enables the openness of the Gospel to the world, the oikoumene of the Romans, and contributes to the emergence and cohesiveness of early Christian communities. To Zumstein, « [l]’heure n’est plus à l’élaboration de l’évangile considéré comme une Écriture désormais clôturée; elle est à une réflexion sur le statut de cet évangile dont il s’agit d’établir la valeur à la fois documentaire et théologique aussi bien pour les communautés joh que pour l’oikoumenè tout entière » (1990, p. 98-99). Yet, as spirit and life, the words of Christ now enclosed in the written Gospel further open the door to other (a)temporal experiences. In other words, to experiences not bounded by the original historical temporality of the narrative.

  • 9 To Zumstein, « [f]ace à la chrétienté asiate, le cercle, auteur de Jean 21, dit à la fois la légiti (...)
  • 10 A little like the idealization of Athenian city processed in Pericles’ speech that opens for Athens (...)

33Though embedded in a historical temporality, the discourses of Christ have the possibility of transcending time through space, thus enabling and founding the spatial extension of the church (ἐκκλησία). This moment corresponds (in historical temporality) with the geographical displacement of Johannine communities from Syria to Asia Minor in the second century CE, and to the reception of the Gospel to communities outside its milieu of composition.9 The second century marks the beginning of the reception of the Fourth Gospel in ancient Christian communities (Zumstein 2017c, p. 31), independently from the original historical context and milieu of its composition (p. 32). By transcending historical temporality, the Gospel may claim spatial expansion,10 while construction orthodoxy (Zumstein 2017c). In so doing, the Gospel demonstrates how “in a narrative, spatial and temporal dimensions correspond, as the reckoning of time results from the perception of motion” (Becker 2017, p. 146).

  • 11 Note here the necessity of letting go of certain details. Memory necessarily involves a process of (...)
  • 12 In this sense, one may observe how the Fourth Gospel entertains a paradoxical relation to ancient h (...)

34In this expansion outside the “constraints of oral memory” (Becker, 2017, p. 14), the textual incarnation of the word enables different stages and cycles of temporality, following both cyclical and linear conceptions of time. The text offers a different kind of presentification (to recall Hartog’s term; see Hartog 2011)–one that expands beyond that of the oral memory, as the reader may follow the different stages of their own personal revelation. The Gospel’s author unveils this very intention in writing the narrative. To its readers, the text opens the door to the religious experience of the (ever present) presence of the risen Christ. To do so, the reader may find the hermeneutical key to signs, sheltered within the last chapters: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.11 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (20:30-31). As illustrated by these verses, the presentification enabled by the text follows both conceptions of time as cycle and line: the cycle of personal reading leading to faith and the lines of the unveiling of signs along the Johannine narrative.12

35The Gospel is written to give life, to infuse spirit and faith; the narrative is placed on the level of theological and spiritual revelation. Readers-believers may first misunderstand the (now written) word but may turn over and over again to the text according to their own spiritual maturity. In the words of Jean Delorme, one needs to attempt

une autre approche de l’écriture, non plus seulement comme processus de mise par écrit (éventuellement d’une tradition orale antérieure) dont le texte est le résultat et le témoin, mais comme articulation significante qui s’actualise dans le travail de la lecture. Le texte est conçu comme « discours » ; il s’offre comme chaîne de signifiants sélectionnés et articulés de telle manière qu’ils sont mis en route vers du sens. Ce travail de la signification s’actualise dans le travail de la lecture. (Delorme 1991 p. 114)

36Meaning and signification are actualized in reading–a reality the Johannine text embraces. Just like Jesus promises Peter who refuses to let his Master wash his feet, “You do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand” (13:7). The narratological linearity of the unveiling of signs meets the cyclical process of spiritual revelation through the a-temporal speeches of Christ. In this encounter between past signs and actualization of reading, one sees the negation of linear temporality. The failure of understanding was only temporary. Though delayed, the promise of “later” stands for all readers-believers, beyond the present moment of Jesus uttering these words. Time does not count. Or perhaps, rather, time will help.


  • 13 Zumstein writes : « toute la construction de l’Évangile est articulée autour de ce croire ou de ce (...)

37Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote of Judaism as “a religion of time. The God of Israel was not found primarily in the facts of nature. He spoke through events in history” (1972, p. 200). As the speeches fashions the word of Christ, they construct a similar architecture of time, with the difference that they also point beyond this construction and tend to negate the very conceptions of time they speak to. As they are in turn molded and experienced by the combination of multiple temporalities, they fashion new realms of (a)temporality. Their content thus travels through and beyond several temporal dimensions (chronological, linear, diegetic, the cyclical time of Revelation). The narratological linear temporality of signs merges with the a-temporal theological dimension of the Prologue and the farewell speeches. The intertwining of these temporal dimensions contributes to unveiling and defining the historical and spiritual times of early Christianity. Thus, in constructing the a-temporal celebration of the Christological Ego, the Word becoming Text engenders the identity of the Johannine community. Writing becomes Spirit and Life in the possibility it carries: the possibility of being the mirror of a faith in need of structuration,13 of a community in need of religious identity. The genius of the text resides in its capacity to be this medium, not bounded by historical reality, though inspired by it: from historical temporality, one enters the realm of theological/spiritual temporality, of a faith in need of growth, a community in need of self-definition, until the text, as a surprising gift, leaves the hands of those who first received it to pursue its travel through and beyond time.

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Becker E., forthcoming. “Beyond History: How the Fourth Gospel Transcends Historiography,” in Biblische Notizen, Freiburg, Base, Wien, Herder.

Becker E., 2017. The Birth of Christian History: Memory and Time from Mark to Luke-Acts, New Haven, Yale University Press.

Brown R., 1966. The Gospel according to John (1st ed., Bible. English. Anchor Bible. 1964; v. 29-29A), Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Coogan, M. D., Brettler Marc Zvi, Newsom Carol A., and Perkins P. (eds.), 2010. The New Oxford Annotated Bible. New Revised Standard Version With the Apocrypha : An Ecumenical Study Bible. Fully Rev. 4th ed. Oxford [England]; New York: Oxford University Press.

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Delorme J., 1991. « Parole, Évangile et Mémoire (Marc 14, 3-9) », in Bonnard P., Marguerat, D. & Zumstein, J. (dir.), La Mémoire et le temps. Mélanges offerts à Pierre Bonnard, Genève, Labor et Fides, p. 113-126.

Foucault M., 1977. “Counter-Memory: The Philosophy of Difference.” in D.F. Bouchard and S. Simon (eds), Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, p. 113-196.

Hartog F., 2015. Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time, Columbia University Press.

Hartog F., 2011. “Time’s Authority,” in A. Lianeri (dir), The Western Time of Ancient History: Historiographical Encounters with the Greek and Roman Pasts, Cambridge, UK/New York, Cambridge University Press, pp. 33-47.

Hartog F., [1980] 2001. Le Miroir d'Hérodote. Essai sur la représentation de l'autre, Paris, Gallimard.

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1 Paul Ricœur also asserted that the Gospel of John belonged to the historiographical genre: « Du point de vue des sciences de la littérature, Jean appartient au genre du récit historiographique » (Ricœur 1995, p. 128).

2 Becker borrows the concept of counter-memory from Michel Foucault. Counter-memories are “discursive practices through which memories are continually revised” (Becker 2017, p. 19 with reference to Misztal 2003). Their objectives “imply a use of history that severs its connection to memory (…), and constructs a counter-memory–a transformation of history into a totally different form of time” (Foucault 1977, p. 160 cited in Becker, p. 19).

3 He writes, “As a historian who tries to be attentive to his time, I have, like many others, observed how the category of the present has taken hold to such an extent that one can really talk of an omnipresent present. This is what I call ‘presentism’ here.” (Hartog 2015, p. 8).

4 Unless otherwise noted, all biblical quotations come from Coogan, Brettler, Newsom, Perkins et al., 2010.

5 For the temporality of reading, see the third section of the present paper.

6 This network of textual and visual memories further confirms Eve-Marie Becker’s assertion that “As literary memory, the gospel writing share, maintain, and develop basic patterns of ancient memorial culture, in this case a strong visual dimension” (2017, p. 15, italics original). She gives the example of Mark creating “literary memory (Mk 14:9) with the constant help of visual images” (ibid.).

7 Associated with Dionysian themes in Roman art, they are related to the iconographic tradition that might have influenced Christian imagery. No doubt the Christian appreciated the decorative qualities of these motifs and took them over pagan art, but must have added new significance to the symbols. See Jensen 2000.

8 Zumstein 1990, p. 95. As such, there is no historical determinism. In his reading of John, Zumstein recognizes the complexity of retrieving historical reconstruction from the text and refuses the transparency of the text. He envisions his own work as opposed to Raymond Brown and Oscar Cullmann. To him, « le récit prend toujours distance par rapport à la réalité, il engendre un monde qui lui est propre et qui ne se prête pas à la formulation de jugements historiques immédiats » (p. 89). For reflections on the nature of memory in the Gospels, see Bonnard, Marguerat, Zumstein 1990 and Zumstein 2017. Thus, there is a double distance between the text and historical reality, between the (modern) historian and historical reality but this distance is to be appreciated. The analysis must dwell within the distance to appreciate the world engendered by the text. In so doing, the text reveals the plurality of historical reality, the multiplicity of its dimensions.

9 To Zumstein, « [f]ace à la chrétienté asiate, le cercle, auteur de Jean 21, dit à la fois la légitimité de l’Évangile de Jean et son ouverture au christianisme proto-catholique » (p. 98).

10 A little like the idealization of Athenian city processed in Pericles’ speech that opens for Athens the possibility of domination of the world-scene, as recorded in Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War II.

11 Note here the necessity of letting go of certain details. Memory necessarily involves a process of forgetting.

12 In this sense, one may observe how the Fourth Gospel entertains a paradoxical relation to ancient history-writing: “John draws on historiography-like conceptual features–which he possibly knew from earlier synoptic gospel accounts–by “fissure-ing” the concept of history-writing at the same time” (Becker forthcoming, p. 2).

13 Zumstein writes : « toute la construction de l’Évangile est articulée autour de ce croire ou de ce “mieux croire”. » Thus, there is a « médiation d’une structuration de la foi, l’instrument permettant de passer d’une foi insuffisante à une foi accomplie » (p. 100).

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Marie-Ange Rakotoniaina, « Travels Through And Beyond Time In The Gospel Of John »Temporalités [En ligne], 30 | 2019, mis en ligne le 23 juillet 2020, consulté le 03 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Marie-Ange Rakotoniaina

Emory University
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Atlanta, GA 30322 (USA) 

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