Twenty questions (Bible study #8)

In the last Bible study, I talked about reading the Bible out loud as a way to focus our interpretive endeavor. When we read aloud, we are forced to make interpretive choices that silent reading misses. This is especially true when reading dialogue. In the Gospel, narrators set scenes, but most of the important information is conveyed through characters’ interactions with one another. The evangelists* present these interactions in various ways, but each uses dialogue as the main vehicle of communication.

When you study the Gospel, pay attention to how the writers structure their dialogue. What is said? What is not said? What are the speaker’s preconceived notions? What are his motivations? What is her background?

Here’s one example. Every time someone calls Jesus “teacher” in the Gospel according to Matthew, that someone is not on Jesus’ side. They are scribes and Pharisees and people asking Jesus questions to test him. On the flip side, Jesus’ disciples and those asking for healing always call Jesus “Lord.” In this way, Matthew shows that the former group doesn’t get that there is so much more going on than an eccentric teacher wandering around spouting eccentric ideas. While “teacher” is not necessarily pejorative, Matthew uses it to show Jesus’ opponents attempting to stifle the rumors of his messiah-ship. With this simple comparison of title, Matthew communicates the struggle for influence between the establishment and Jesus’ disciples.

Matthew does all that with two little words: “teacher” and “Lord.” Across the Gospel, there is very little extraneous information, so we rarely get an explicit statement of a character’s mood or bearing. Besides Mark’s use of “immediately,” adverbs are in short supply in the Gospel. The dramatic force of characters’ interactions is driven by the dialogue itself; this dialogue is charged with intent, meaning, and suggestion, so descriptors are distracting at worst and ancillary at best. Read through all four accounts of the Gospel, and I bet you could count the number of times someone’s mood is described on one hand. (Check John 11 for a couple).

The narrators do not need to intrude into conversations because the evangelists are pretty darn good writers. How would it be if the text said: The woman said flirtatiously, “How can you get that living water?” Jesus, feigning ignorance of her advance, responded dispassionately, “You drink of this water…”

I know. Not the best writing ever. Rather than infesting their conversations with adverbs, good writers develop dialogue that suggests what I stated explicitly in the above example. Here’s how John writes the conversation: The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “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. (John 4:11-14)

Of course, I’m making an interpretive choice when I read flirtation into this conversation, but John’s dialogue leads me there. Pay attention to what the characters in the Gospel say and don’t say, especially the ubiquitous dialogical motif of a speaker failing to answer the question that is asked.

Try this one on for size. At the beginning of the Gospel according to John, some priests and Levites come to question John. They ask him: “Who are you?” Here’s what he doesn’t say: “I’m John from over yonder a bit. My parents are Zechariah and Elizabeth. I’m the crazy guy who eats locusts and wild honey and wears uncomfortable shirts.” Instead, he says, “I am not the Messiah.”** Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but this does not even come close to answering their question. If sobreadboxmeone came up to me and said, “Who are you,” then responding, “Well, I’m not a toaster oven,” doesn’t really narrow it down.

But John and the Levites keep playing twenty questions: “Are you Elijah?” I am not. “Are you the prophet? Nope. Obviously, because of John’s recent activity, both he and the Levites know that this little game is about more than who John is. If it were that simple, my answer about uncomfortable shirts would have been enough. They want to know what his significance is in the history of the salvation of Israel. With this in mind, his leap to downplaying rumors of messianism makes more sense. Rather than asking him if he’s larger than a breadbox, they try a new version of their original question: “What do you have to say about yourself?” And again, John doesn’t answer their question. He speaks not about himself but about the one to whom he points: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’ ” Even here, when they ask him a direct question about himself, John points to Jesus.

By structuring a conversation in which John answers different questions than the ones asked, the evangelist offers us insight into both parties. Watch out for this kind of conversation in the Gospel (especially John’s account).

Okay, I’m approaching a thousand words about this topic, so I think I’ll stop soon. When you read the conversations in the Bible, be sensitive to how the writers put the words together. Focus on the dialogue and let it speak to you. And know that Jesus is not just talking to the woman at the well or the crowd beneath the mount. He is speaking to you and to me.


* This is a handy shorthand for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the authorities behind the four canonical accounts of the Gospel.

** Actually, according to the narrator, “He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed…” This is one of those odd places where the narrator does inject description into conversation. But it’s so rare that these few words take up lots of pages in commentaries.

One thought on “Twenty questions (Bible study #8)

  1. thanks for sending me your paper! i enjoyed your perspective and writing syle. very engaging.

    thank you also for this post. i love the fresh hermeneutical approach you are taking. i’ve always thought the words chosen by the authors of Scripture are so very important. we need to pay more attention to the details. we need to pay attention to what is not said as much as what is said as you’ve pointed out here…thank yo again!

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