“Role and Status in the Fourth Gospel: Cutting Through Confusion”

University of Notre Dame

(Forthcoming in Jouette M. Bassler Festshrift, The Impartiality of God, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2007)


Introduction: Problem, Solution and Hypothesis

Scholarship on characters in the Fourth Gospel has exploded in recent times, but like most explosions, the energies released travel helter-skelter with no coordination of method or agreed results. We are told of symbolic,1 representative,2 and even “narrative” 3 study of Johannine characters,4 all of which avoid any analysis of them in terms of their social, cultural role and status. Even when some current studies of Peter treat his “role” or “status,” the interpreters do not bother to tell us what is meant by “role” and “status.” 5 Comment on Mary Magdalene and the Samaritan Woman labors with imprecision because of misguided efforts to ascribe to them some role. Part of the problem lies in the way such scholars value only “role,” but not “status.” Hence we find Mary Magdalen variously described as an “apostle,” a quasi-apostle, an apostle to the apostles, a mediator and a witness.6 Moreover, some explicitly refuse to use social and cultural materials, in favor of a reading free from academic controls and constraints:

This article is an attempt to outline some significant female features in the picture as a whole and as far as possible in an article of limited extent to indicate a coherent view of the roles and functions of women in the Gospel of John. My emphasis is on description rather than on explanation, the description not being dependent on any specific terminology or methodological frame of reference.7
Result: impressionistic guesses. Thus previous use of social concepts such as “role” and “status” to interpret Johannine characters is either absent, imprecise, or rejected. What readers need, then, is rigor in their reading of the dramatis personae of the Fourth Gospel, which we propose to do by means of careful use of the social concepts of “role” and “status.”

In most of the studies I have examined, even if “role” and “status” are mentioned, these concepts are not well understood and so are used loosely, resulting in imprecision and vulnerability to exaggeration or ideological advancement. Moreover, one finds a bias in scholarship that values only “role,” but ignores “status” –a perilous opinion in regard to the Fourth Gospel. But if we employ formal notions of “role” and “status,” what problem will this solve? What advantage grained from it? First, precision which can rescue the project from the Kingdom of Hunch and Guess. In place of the conflicting and subjective interpretations mentioned above, shared critical understanding of “role” and “status” will provide a solid basis for reading with rigor. Second, the ancient world was acutely aware of roles and statuses. In a world whose pivotal value is honor, worth, regard, and esteem, “role” and “status” located people in horizontal relationships as well as vertical evaluation. This “self knowledge” was vital for all those playing the game.

    In this study, we will argue the following hypotheses:
  1. 1. “Status” is vastly more important in the Fourth Gospel than “role.”
  2. 2. Characters, who in the synoptics enjoy identifiable roles, lack them in the Fourth Gospel. It is almost as if this Gospel were anti-traditional in terms of leadership roles.
  3. 3. In fact, although there are many roles evident in the Fourth Gospel (kinship and political roles), there are few roles in view within the Jesus Group
  4. 4. We can identify 12 criteria for status, which are not all of equal importance; nor does it matter if characters do not have all such status markers, provided they have the right ones.

Eventually, this study will yield a social map, a ranking of persons as having elite, moderate and low status within the Jesus group.

And so, our argument contains four steps: 1. clarify the meaning and use of “role” and “status,” for which we turn to social and cultural studies; 2. apply the concepts of “role” and “status” to seven figures: the Samaritan Woman, the man born blind, the “Beloved” family at Bethany, the disciples, Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciples; 3. extract criteria for evaluating status; 4. draw a social map locating by status hierarchizes the Johannine characters as enjoying elite, moderate and meager status, based on the twelve criteria identified.

Role and Status: the Theory

Role. The concept of “role,” borrowed from the stage, involves behavior and the socially recognized position of a person, entailing rights and duties. A role implies a set of expectations for interaction between a person who holds one position in a group and another person who holds a reciprocal position.8 In other words, there can be no role of ‘leader’ without a ‘follower’ role, no mother without child.9 as several anthropologists define it, “role” is

. . . a set of expected behavior patterns, obligations, and norms attached to a particular status. The distinction between status and role is a simple one: you “occupy” a certain status, but you “play” a role. . . as a student you occupy a certain status that differs from that of your teacher, administrators, or other staff. As you occupy that status you perform by attending lectures, taking notes, participating in class, and studying for examinations. This concept of role is derived from the theater and refers to the parts played by actors on the stage. If you are a husband, mother, son, daughter, teacher, lawyer, judge, male or female, you are expected to behave in certain ways because of the norms associated with that particular status.10
Thus the role of “mother” refers to her status and duties to her children; in politics: kings vis-â-vis subjects; in economics: bankers to borrowers; and in education, teachers to students.11 As Malina states, “roles are indicative of institutional location, hence of the status of that person within that institution.”12

Examination of certain roles in the Fourth Gospels can give flesh to this abstraction. Here we are considering various roles which members of the Jesus group do not play or value. In the institution of kinship, we know of family roles, those of Jesus and then of other characters.13 Jesus’ family consists of Joseph, his father (6:42); God, his Father; (Mary) his mother (2:1-12; 19:26-27); his aunt (19:25) and his brothers (7:3-5). Other blood relationships include: the brothers Andrew and Peter (1:40); the sisters Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus (11:1) and the sons of Zebedee (21:2). All persons in familial roles have reciprocal duties and their roles last as long as the relationship does. Furthermore, in the institution of Israelite politics, various roles of Jesus are either acknowledged or denied such as “prophet” (6:14; 7:52; 9:17), “king” (6:15; 12:13; 18:33-37), “Messiah” (1:41; 4:25-26; 7:31, 41-42 ) and “teacher” (1:38; 3:2; 20:16). Inasmuch as Israelite religion was embedded in politics, we recognize other roles, such as a Judean leader (?????, 3:2) and high priests (11:49-51; 18:13-26); Joseph of Arimathea belongs here as well, because of his wealth (19:40-41). Similarly, we know of roles in the institution of imperial politics: Caesar and a Roman prefect, who owes the loyalty of his imperial “friend” (19:12). Of concern to this study are the potential roles played by the seven characters of the Jesus group mentioned above.

Status. Whereas persons play certain roles, they occupy or have status. “Status” differs from “role” in that status is “a recognized position that a person occupies within society. . .[which] determines where he or she fits in relationship to everyone else.”14 In addition, one scholar defines status as “a quality entailing deference and precedence in interaction, a quality of professional or public honor. . .Status systems are generated by bases or dimensions of honor – power, wealth, knowledge.15“Status” suggests verticality, a ranking of people according to cultural criteria of worth or excellence.16 It indicates the honor, respect, or worth a person enjoys.17 Thus statuses are thought of as “polar or reciprocal: any particular status always implies at least one other to which it is related.”18 For example, some statuses may be first or last, highest or lowest, most or least or best or worst.

To visualize “status,” imagine an elongated pyramid (e.g, Bank of America building in San Francisco). By custom, the higher one’s floor, the more elevated one’s status. This pyramid has fifty floors, such that the lower one’s status, the lower one’s floor: Bank of America occupies the top ten floors, whose CEO has his office on the top floor; ten floors below is the office Dewey, Cheetum and Howe, Esq., and well below them is the office of the political action committee to re-elect Arnold.

It will help if we add another piece of information to this status pyramid, taken from the inscriptions on the temple at Delphi. On the entrance to the temple at Delphi three pithy sayings were engraved: “Know thyself” (???? sea?t??),.”Nothing overmuch” (µ?d?? ??an), and “A pledge, and ruin is nigh.”19 The man who “knows himself” knows his honor and status and so his social position on the pyramid. This is social knowledge, not conscience awareness. The wise man who “knows himself” avoids extremes, that is, he does not strive for higher status nor allow himself to pushed below what society deems appropriate to a person of his social location (Plutarch, Letter to Apollonius 116D-E).20 Thus all persons should know just where they belong and so give deference to those above and expect the same from those below.

To assess status, an examiner must know the particular criteria used for ranking and evaluation, either 1) extrinsic-institutional criteria or 2) intrinsic-personal criteria. Extrinsic criteria evaluate someone in terms of basic societal institutions, which in ancient Judea consisted of politics and kinship. Hence, in the system of politics, people may be ranked as powerful or weak (“Do you not know that I have power to crucify you?” John 19:10)21; in kinship, one is either a blood relative or an outsider (“It is not right to take the children’s bread and give it to dogs” Matt 15:26); in economics, few are rich, but many are poor (“a rich man clothed in purple and fine linen who feasted sumptuously every day. . .a poor man full of sores desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table,” Luke 16:19-20).22 In the world of antiquity, status was immediately related to these three binary opposites: male/female; Greek/barbarian and free/slave.23 Males, simply by birth, were thought of as having a position in life superior to that of females, as is evident from study of the pervasive, radical gender division characteristic of antiquity.24 Greeks considered themselves the only civilized people in the world, all others being barbarians; free elites with leisure ranked over the working poor who ranked over slaves, of whom Aristotle said that they were not human at all.

Intrinsic criteria look to personal qualities or achievements. Personal qualities evaluate an person in terms of cultural values (beautiful, witty, wise, strong, pious, possessed by spirits).25 For example, A. W. K. Adkins describes how in an early period of life in Greece the “aggressive virtues” were valued, but with stable polis life, the “agreeable virtues” rose in importance. More to our point, persons in the Fourth Gospel are regularly evaluated in terms of values such as courage, whether one associates with Jesus in daylight or nighttime (3:1-2) or whether one publicly confesses him or remains silent in fear (9:4-33 vs 9:22; 12:42). Achievements speak to culturally valued acts, for example, endurance of pain or deprivation (ascetical achievements of monks and hermits) prowess (military, athletic or aesthetic), skills, intellectual insights or commercial successes.26

Persons may be further evaluated in terms of their position in each of kinship and political institutions. Thus they may be ranked as highest or lowest, first or last, and rich or poor. Moreover, even when power is stratified, various roles can be ranked. The Fourth Gospel knows of 1) Caesar, the Emperor, 2) Pilate, procurator and “friend” of Caesar, 3) Roman soldiers and slaves.27 Kinship roles are always high stratified: at the head, the father or patriarch of the family, his wife and the mother of his children; among these children sons rank higher than daughters and among the sons one stands out as major.

To give flesh to the abstract definition of status, let us examine several Greco-Roman texts which can illustrate the matter. In one place Josephus describes the composition of a deputation:

The scheme agreed upon was to send a deputation comprising persons of different classes of society but of equal standing in education. Two of them, Jonathan and Ananias, were from the lower ranks (d?µ?t????) and adherents of the Pharisees; the third, Jozar, also a Pharisee, came of a priestly family (?e?at??? ??????); the youngest, Simon, was descended from high priests (????e???) (Josephus, Life 196).
So, we identify three level of status or three floors in our pyramid: lower, priestly, and high priestly strata. Josephus presumes that all will know how to rank these levels of status in their proper hierarchy, from lowest to highest.

Similarly Cicero distinguishes various levels of his society in terms of their honor rating. First he states that it our duty to honor men “conspicuous for conduct in keeping with their high moral standards, and who, as true patriots, have rendered or are now rendering efficient service to their country.” Continuing with persons worthy of honor, “it is our duty also to show proper respect to old age, to yield precedence to magistrates, to make a distinction between a fellow-citizen and a foreigner, and, in the case of the foreigner himself, to discriminate according to whether he has come in an official or a private capacity” (de Officiis 1.149). Next “in regards to trades an other means of livelihood,” he distinguishes which ones are to be considered becoming to a gentleman and which ones are vulgar.” He then catalogues the “vulgar” trades at great length:

First, those whose means of livelihood are rejected as undesirable. . .as those of tax-gatherer and usurers. Unbecoming to a gentleman, too, and vulgar are the means of livelihood of all hired workmen whom we pay for mere manual labour, not for artistic skill. . .Vulgar we must consider those also who buy from wholesale merchants to retail immediately; for they would get no profits without a great deal of downright lying; and there is no action meaner than misrepresentation. And all mechanics are engaged in vulgar trades; for no workshop can have anything liberal about it. Least respectable of all are those trades which cater for sensual pleasures: "Fishmongers, butchers, cooks, and poulterers, and fishermen," as Terence says. (de Officiis 1.150).
In view here is the old prejudice that those who work with their hands have insufficient leisure to be literate and so civilized. Yet in contrast to “vulgar” laborers, Cicero describes honorable “professions” (artibus) which are honorable:
The professions in which either a higher degree of intelligence is required or from which no small benefit to society is derived -- medicine and architecture, for example, and teaching -- these are proper for those whose social position they become. Trade, if it is on a small scale, is to be considered vulgar; but if wholesale and on a large scale, importing large quantities from all parts of the world and distributing to many without representation, it is not to be greatly disparaged. . .But of all the occupations by which gain is secured, none is better than agriculture, none more profitable, none more delightful, none more becoming to a freeman (de Officiis 1.151).
Thus Cicero identifies and ranks those to whom we have a duty to honor: elites conspicuous for high moral standards or service of the state; elites, of course, do not labor for wages which characterizes a low social group performing “vulgar” labors, who are then contrasted with a middle group whose “professions” require artistry and skill. These three groups, we suggest, occupy different statuses in Cicero’s elite perspective.

If roles in the Fourth Gospel were easy to spot, not so status. Our task now is to discover the criteria whereby the author of the Fourth Gospel evaluates the people in his narrative. In the narrative, we find two antithetical sets of evaluative criteria: those representative of insiders in the Jesus group and those of the dominant society outside the group (i.e., Temple and synagogue).28 Depending on one’s point of view, each group divides the world into insiders and outsiders. Insiders and outsiders are recognizable according to the criteria of honor and shame: for one group, such-and-such is praiseworthy, even if reviled by its antithesis; and first group may hold in contempt what the second one honor. In the eyes of his followers, Jesus the Insider deserves great honor, worth and respect. In addition to statements that God has glorified Jesus and will glorify him again (8:54; 12:23; 13:31-32; 17:1, 4), God himself mandates that “All. . .honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father” (5:23). But in the eyes of outsiders, he is a disgrace and his credentials refused. Like most prophets, Jesus receives no respect in his homeland (4:44). Some even accuse him of demon possession (8:49). The evangelist provides a culturally based reason for denial of honor: many value more what the synagogue or their neighbors think of them, than what God thinks. Hence they prefer the “glory that comes from one another” (5:44) to the praise of God. Our task, then is to determine who is an insider or outsider and who constitutes this in terms of antithetical criteria for honor and shame.

The Fourth Gospel provides an insider point of view; from which we recognize insiders and outsiders, by what criteria insiders are worthy of honor and respect and outsiders little or no honor. criteria.29

This article cannot hope to examine all of the dramatis personae in the narrative, and so we focus on certain elite insiders to see more accurately why they are honored: 1) the Samaritan woman, 2) the disciples, 3) the man born blind, 4) Martha, Mary and Lazarus, 5) the Beloved Disciple, 6) Mary Magdalene and 7) Peter. We begin by according these persons insider status, which means that they are all honorable persons in the Johannine Jesus Group in differing ways and some more so than others. By what criteria can we know status in the Fourth Gospel? In our reading of the seven characters mentioned above, we will look for what makes them special or distinctive. And, as each character is examined, we would expect to find similar markers identifying characters. What to look for in the first place? Readers of the Fourth Gospel are schooled already in that virtues and vices count here; and because we are so often urged to compare and contrast characters, we gain assurance of what is important or detrimental. The paper ends with an extended synopsis of the characters being studied, in which the major section deals with role and status, especially an inventory of criteria. If readers desire, they are welcome to peek.

The Samaritan Woman.

Role. At least one role of the Samaritan woman is clear, wife/spouse, which she has played at least five times, but no longer (4:18). Her household duties included clothing production, child rearing, and food preparation, the last of which explains her presence at the well.30 But some scholars have tout her as “witness” and “apostle.” Apostle? Although Jesus said “Go, call your husband” (4:16), he did not commission her to recruit the inhabitants of Sychar; nor do we know if she in fact “called her husband.” If a speaking role was authorized, why does the author not deal with the novelty of a woman addressing non-related males in public? If Jesus did not authorize her, she acts on her own and without authorization. Schneiders delights in this, namely, that she “assumes on her own the mission of witness.”31 But “making yourself something” is a vainglorious claim in the ancient culture and was universally considered folly.322 Look at the threats to kill Jesus for “making himself” equal to God (5:18; 10:33), son of God (19:7), and king (19:12; see 8:53). When authorization is important, the author hammers us with the information that God established Jesus in his ascribed role and status,33 but nothing is said about her authorization. To claim that the Woman “makes herself a witness etc.,” is simply a bad idea. The following chart compares and contrasts the Samaritan Woman with others who are formally “sent.”
Figure Authorization Role and Purpose
John the Baptist “. . . a man sent from God,” (1:6); “. . .he who sent me to baptize with water” (1:33).
  1. role: witness par excellence
  2. specific content of witnessing: (1:15, 29, 30, 33-34)
  3. purpose: “That all might believe” (1:7)
  4. duration: until he died
  5. audience: specific people suitable for baptism
Samaritan Woman “Go, call your husband” (4:16) – not formal authorization as witness
  1. role: ??? recruiter? bringer of news?
  2. content: “told me everything I ever did” + “can this be the Christ”?
  3. no purpose of “calling” stated by Jesus in 4:16.
  4. duration: after two days, her witness is outgrown & ceases
  5. audience: call your husband; but people of Sychar?
Disciples I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor” (4:38). . .“ As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (17:18) . . .“As the Father has sent me, even so I send you" (20:21-23)
  1. role: agents
  2. content of role: purification but presumably other tasks if they are “sent” as Jesus was sent.
  3. purpose: to harvest believers and to effect purification
  4. duration: presumably until they die
  5. audience: those already evangelized; insiders
Mary Magdalene Go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (20:17)
  1. role: witness
  2. specific content of message (20:17)
  3. purpose: sharing unique revelation with fictive kin
  4. duration?
  5. audience: “brethren” and so insiders
John, the disciples and Magdalene are authorized for a specific purpose, sometimes the dissemination of some revelation or message,34 but the Woman has neither message nor revelation to declare (she speaks in “questions”). Finally, the villagers themselves terminate whatever “witness” she bore (4:39), for they surpass her by having immediate access to Jesus. They declare, moreover, Jesus to be superior to whatever she said about him (4:42). If a “role,” it is extremely short-lived.

Witness: if not an “apostle,” then a “witness”? “Witnesses” are always insiders who may speak to insiders or outsiders. Most witnesses speak as forensic defenders of Jesus in public (1:19-28; 5:31-40; 7:7; 16:8-11), and occasionally spread propaganda about Jesus (1:32-34). The narrative, moreover, pays considerable attention to what makes a good forensic witness: witnessing by two witnesses (8:13-18), the noble standing of witnesses (5:31-37) and deeds (10:25), none of which apply, because the she is not a forensic witness. The propaganda quality of “witnessing,” moreover, should contain specific content (some acknowledgment of the role and status of Jesus: 1:34; 9:17). Informants “witness” about Jesus (11:46). And indeed the villagers state that they came to believe because of her “witness” (4:39), i.e., the ????? she spoke to them. But in the parameters of the narrative, this strange ????? is her thricefold argument that Jesus might be the Christ because “He told me everything I ever did” (4:29 and 39), namely, her sexual history. One might glory in a benefaction, but touting one’s sexual history? Something indeed has happened in Sychar, but it does not result from her authorization as apostle or witness.

Might she have an informal role, such as recruiter or one who carries news or one who brings gossip? In regard to recruitment, in 1:35-51 we find a pattern whereby a believer speaks a word about Jesus and invites the hearer to “come and see” (John to Andrew, Andrew to Peter, Philip to Nathanael). They are certainly not “apostles” here, even if they recruit others. In regard to those who carry news, we find a pattern whereby X tells Y some news: Martha tells Mary that Jesus is there (11:28; see 11:3); Philip tells Andrew about the Greeks and both tell Jesus (12:21-22); the disciples tell Thomas about the risen Jesus (20:25). In a world without media, news is spread informally by means of a “gossip network.”35 “Gossip” as news network is the right term here. If the Samaritan Woman has a recognized place in her social network, it is most likely that of one who brings news or who plugs into a gossip network.

Status. One of the premiere status markers in the Fourth Gospel is knowledge: 1) what one has been told or revealed; what secrets one knows; and what selected disclosures one enjoys. Although Jesus says many things to her, what she does not know remains a problem at the end of conversation is significant For half of the dialogue she misunderstands Jesus (4:7-14); even at 4:15, she reckons Jesus’ “water” to be a permanent thirst quencher only. In 4:16-26 she does not strictly misunderstand Jesus so much as spar with him. Jesus is not fooled by her attempted deception of her shamelessness, “I have no husband.” He is the character with all knowledge. She mocks Jesus’ revelation of her sexual history by calling him “Mr. Know-it-all,” a prophet, and challenges him to solve the divisive issue of where to worship. After he informs her, she again challenges him with a Samaritan claim to ultimate knowledge: “We know that the Messiah will tell us everything” (so much for your knowledge!). Except that, “I am the Messiah.” What does she know? As the saying goes, “Not much.” Prophet and Messiah are not revelations to her or acknowledgments by her, but agonistic and sarcastic remarks in her interminable sparring match. How much did Jesus’ revelation penetrate? Inasmuch as she subsequently refers to Jesus only in interrogative terms (“Can this man be the Messiah?” 4:29), what does she know? How surprising, then, is Schneider’s claim that she is “remarkable for the clarity and completeness of the presentation of the revelation process in the Fourth Gospel.”36 Her status, then, rests on what she knows and how much she understood of what was said to her. Finally, her status takes a hit when her villagers dismiss her “witnessing.” Hence, we acknowledge for her a role such as informal recruiter and bringer of news, but her status never rises to the level of the later great figures.

What of the other status markers? As a representative or symbolic character, her narrative characteristics would normally be considered markers of very low status: a female, a Samaritan, an unclean person, a sinner and even an adulteress. Ironically these are ignored or even utilized positively in the narrative.37 She might well typify that the last is first, the outsider is an insider, unclean is clean, etc. Even if she does not enjoy high status, she is certainly superior to Nicodemus, whom the author holds in contempt.38 Her juxtaposition with Nicodemus increases her status: he came to Jesus in darkness (cowardice?), but she appears in sunlight; he never ceased misunderstanding Jesus, but with here there is [some] progress; the best he said about Jesus was “teacher,” whereas, even if in interrogative mode, she declares Jesus “Messiah”; both mock Jesus, but she is never mocked by him. Once more, role is less significant than status.

The Disciples

Included in this group are true and consistent insiders, such as: 1. the first persons to follow Jesus who then recruit others (1:35-51); 2. those labeled “followers/disciples” (µa??ta? : 2:2, 11; 4:27; 13:5; 20:20-26; 21:1-2); 3. “the Twelve” (6:67-71); and 4. people like the man born blind who is shamed for being “his disciple” (9:28). Others were once disciples or claimed to be so: 1. people who claim to believe but who are liars: “If you continue in my word you are my disciples” (8:32) and 2. people who were once disciples but have dropped out of the group (6:60-65). Some are named (Andrew, Simon, Philip and Nathanael, Thomas, Judas, not Iscariot, and Judas the traitor), while others are anonymous. The Fourth gospel, which mentions the traditional disciple Andrew three times (1:35-40, 6:8-9; 12:22), gives special attention to disciples less well known in other gospels: Philip (1:43; 6:5-7; 12:21; 14:8-10), Nathanael (1:45-50; 21:2), Thomas (11:16; 14:4-6; 20:24-29; 21:1). The premiere “disciples” have been with Jesus from the beginning, seen his signs and are visited by the Risen Jesus. We focus only on the named, abiding followers, who are genuine insiders.

Role. As regards their role, Jesus “sends” them, either to harvest where they have not sown (4:38) or to purify in virtue of the Spirit Jesus gives them (20:21-23). Both tasks are directed to insiders; “reaping” refers to what others sowed, so the harvest is that of insiders; and forgiving and retaining sins refers to the purity of the group, that is, to insiders. There can be no forgiveness of “the world” and its ruler. In addition to these formal authorizations, the are told to assist at the feeding, making the people sit down and gathering up the fragments. But these commands (6:10, 12), symbolically significant as they may be, are not authorized as duties or repeatable tasks as are the “reaping” and “forgiving” of sins. According to the purpose for which they are “sent” and the commands given them, they are portrayed as laboring only within the group.39 Although they function in the process of recruitment (1:36-51) and as brokers for people seeking Jesus (12:20-23), they seem not to have a role to outsiders, neither traveling to them nor heralding a word to win adherents.40 Unlike the synoptic gospels, they are not sent out on an apprentice mission (Matt 10:1-15//Mark 3:13-19), nor are they formally commissioned by the risen Jesus, “Go, make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19; see Luke 24:44-49).We are, then, reluctant to call them “apostles,” the role in favor among Paul and others. and in forgiving and retaining sins.

As regards status, because Jesus makes a parallel between the Father “sending” him and his “sending” of them ( “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (17:18; see 20:21), we consider them sub-brokers of Jesus, the premiere broker of God.41 This suggests considerable status. Peder Borgen argued that we consider Jesus as “agent” of God. The basic principle of the Israelite institution of agency is “an agent is like the one who sent him.”42 Hence the disciples are “like” the one who sends them, i.e., Jesus. Second, the disciples receive selected disclosure of special Johannine gnosis. They are promised a unique vision of the Son of Man enthroned in heaven (1:51), a high status marker. They are present at three of Jesus’ signs: the multiplication of water-wine in 2:1-12 and loaves in 6:5-13 and the raising of Lazarus, the last and greatest sign, although sign faith proves ambiguous. They hear the controversial discourse about the Bread of Life (6:29-59). In the Farewell Discourse, they are instructed about Jesus’ “whence” and “whither,” prayer, judgment, and future crises. Ddisclosure of special information, moreover, is a high status marker. Third, they are exhorted to practice the two premier Johannine virtues, “remain” and “love,” loyalty being another status marker. Fourth, they are promised another Advocate, who will broker knowledge of Jesus to them, either past things that Jesus said or future things (14:25-26 and 15:26). They receive manifestations of the risen and ascended Jesus (20:19-23, 24-29 and 21:1-23). Clearly they are insiders of considerable status. But the status markers just noted are just that, status marker, not authorizations to engage outsiders.

In summary, they are positioned at both the entrance and exit of the group: recruiting others and determining if sins are forgiven or retained. There seems to be no command to speak to outsiders. Their status, moreover, seems more important than any role they play in the community.

The Man Born Blind

Does the remark of Jesus to him (“Go, wash in the pool of Siloam,”9:7) serve as a commission to play a role? Superficially it resembles Jesus’ remark to the Samaritan Woman, “Go, call your husband” (4:15) in that both are commands to do a specific thing; but no role is in view. After fulfilling the command, he is transformed from blind to sighted, but still no role is in view. But when reaggregated with his family and neighbors, he begins to play the role of “witness,” although the technical term µa?t???? /µ??t?? is not used of him, nor was he authorized to do so. He publicly answers a series of questions: “Is this not the man?” “I am”; “Where is he?” “I do not know”; “The Pharisees asked how he received his sight”. . .”He put clay on my eyes.” Finally, when asked about Jesus, he says “He is a prophet.” His speech, while not formally authorized, is clearly a full, bold, public acknowledgment of Jesus, especially when juxtaposed to the fear of public “confession” in his parents (9:22). At this moment the audience knows that a forensic proceeding is occurring, and the “witnessing” will become sharp and pointed. His interrogators “know” that Jesus is a sinner (24), a judgment from which he dissociates himself (“Whether this man is a sinner, I do not know”). Instead he “knows” a legal fact “though I was blind, now I see” (9:25) and that it was commanded by Jesus, even though it was the Sabbath. After the court reviled him, he utters some of the best lines in the drama: “You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. . .If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (9:31-33). As a witness, he defends Jesus to hostile outsiders and constructs the perfect argument about the source and meaning of Jesus’ signs. For him Jesus is Prophet and the one authorized by God. As regards his role, he speaks as a forensic witness on Jesus’ behalf at a trial before outsiders -- and without authorization. He is one the heroes of the Fourth Gospel.

He enjoys, moreover, very high status for several reasons. First, he is the beneficiary of a unique miracle (“Never since the world began has it been heard that any one opened the eyes of a man born blind,” 9:32). Second, in contrast to those afraid to confess Jesus publicly (9:22; 12:42; Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea), by his feisty dialogue he manifests great courage. Third, he suffers for his witness by being subject to the very sentence which is parents sought to avoid, being ostracized from the synagogue, which Jesus predicts will be the fate of authentic disciples (16:1-2; see 12:24-25). Finally, he receives a special revelation from Jesus (9:35-38). Jesus “found” him and asked him: “Do you believe in the Son of man?” To his honest reply, “Who is he. . ?” Jesus then makes a selected disclosure of unique information: “You have seen him. . it is he who speaks to you” (9:37), which he appropriates, “Lord, I believe” (9:38). Thus the status of the man born blind hinges on four elements: 1. favored with a remarkable sign (9:32); 2. bold, public acknowledgment of Jesus; 3. suffering for the sake of Jesus, and 4. recipient of special revelation. His role is that of witness; he enjoys very high status.

The Beloved Ones.

The author tells us of a crisis in Bethany in a family consisting of one brother and two sisters. Lazarus, Martha, and Mary already enjoy high-status inasmuch as they are all called “beloved” of Jesus. Do any of them play a role? Lazarus plays no role. Yet his status seems to be quite high. First, he is “beloved” by Jesus and the beneficiary of Jesus’ last and greatest sign. Because sitting at table with Jesus is so rare in this gospel, his sitting beside Jesus in 12:1-2 signals significant status. Finally, we are told that the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death because he is a living and public witness to Jesus’ power (12:9-11). He is targeted, then, to suffer and die for Christ. So, in one sense he will die because of Jesus and even die with Jesus, very high status indeed (see 12:24-25). Thus, Lazarus, while playing no role, nevertheless enjoys very high status.

Just because the sisters send news of Lazarus’ illness to Jesus does not of itself indicate they have a role (11:3). Many bring new to others but have no formal role, such as the unnamed person who tells Martha that Jesus has come to town (11:20).43 We focus, then, on the conversation between Jesus and Martha in 11:20-27. Formally, this looks like another statement-misunderstanding-clarification exchange, suggesting that Jesus teaches and Martha learns. She begins the dialogue with a reproach (“If you had been here, my brother would not have died”) and a petition (“I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you”). Her “I know” is no empty claim, and acknowledges Jesus’ close relationship to God. Jesus’ statement to her seems obvious: “Your brother will rise again.” Martha, however, misunderstands Jesus’ words in terms of traditional knowledge about “resurrection” and “last day.” She knows old knowledge, but not the new knowledge of Jesus. Jesus then makes a clarification, which is a select disclosure of remarkable knowledge: “I am the resurrection and the life. . .” (11:24-25). But the narrative suggests that Martha does not entirely understand what Jesus said to her. At first her response is of a lower order than Jesus’ self-revelation: “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world” (11:27). The problem is that in this gospel the claim to be or have “resurrection and life” is part of an elitist understanding based on Jesus claim that he enjoys full eschatological power and so equality with God.44 Martha’s response does not include anything of this sort. Yet, asked if she believed this, she stated that she does believe, a confession of significance, although not what was asked of her. Thus as a student, she cannot be said to have learned her lessons well.45

Thus according to the criteria for status, she is neither lowest nor highest. First, she enjoys special status as “beloved” because of a relationship with Jesus. Second, she is the recipient of revelation which , however, she does not grasp. Third, her brother will be favored with the greatest of signs, although she will need coaching at tomb-side (11:39). “Beloved” is balanced by mediocre understanding of revelation and need for coaching.

Mary Magdalene

Most recent discussion of Mary Magdalene centers around whether she has a role and if so, which one. We know that Jesus sent her to an elite group in a speaking capacity with a specific message: “Go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father. . .” She is authorized; in this regard she is similar to the disciples whom Jesus sends to retain or release sins (20:21) and Peter whom Jesus established as the shepherd to “feed my lambs. . .sheep” (21:15-18). All of these, moreover, are directed ad intra, that is, to insiders of the group. Except for 15:27 and 17:18, the Fourth Gospel mentions no authorization to speak to outsiders unlike Matt 28:18-20.

What role? Either “witness” or “apostle” or “prophet.” Inasmuch as no other person in the Fourth Gospel other than Jesus is ever considered an “apostle,”46 prima facie we find it extremely difficult to ascribe this role to Mary. We are also hesitant to ascribe the role of “witness” to her. Witnesses may speak to outsiders as well as insiders, but speak of what they already know at special times and circumstances. Mary is sent to tell “my brethren” unique knowledge, which no one else knows. She is then, a conduit of specific information of the highest significance. This distinguishes her speaking role from all others in the Fourth Gospel. Her “message” is not just news, but the handing on of a unique disclosure. She has, then, a speaking role which I consider a prophetic role. Although the Spirit will come and remind the disciples of words Jesus spoke long ago, her role is immediately from the Risen Jesus – no function of Spirit – and she conveys new, not old information. Her role, moreover, needs to be measured against Jesus’ remarks to the disciples who are authorized twice according to the formula: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (17:18; 20:21). Mary does not belong the chain of authorized command: God ? Jesus ? disciples; she is the mouthpiece for Jesus and she speaks as his agent, his prophet.

If Mary was thought to have a public speaking role, some gender considerations are in order. Speech. In general, females spoke only with the males of their households or kinship groups (1 Tim 2:12; 1 Cor 14:33-36), but not with males apart from these groups. She, however, speaks to “my brethren,” a fictive kin group whom she presumably knows and who know her. Travel. Whereas the commissioning of male disciples in the Synoptics implies that they will travel from city to city and town to town, speaking to strangers of the House of Israel in “public” space, Mary is not thus commissioned. She will not speak to strangers, especially strange males, but to “my brethren” whom she knows and who know her. Word/ Gospel. Witnesses and apostles will deliver the official message about Jesus again and again and again as they go from group to group to group (Matt 28:19). But Mary speaks only one word, albeit an extraordinary revelation. But having spoken it, she will have fulfilled her duty to Jesus. Duration. Whereas the roles of witness and apostle endure as long as their holders live, can the same thing be said of Mary? The gospel does not say that she recruits disciples or speaks to outsiders or even continues to speak to insiders. The orientation of her message is strictly to insiders, not outsiders. Her role, therefore, is dissimilar to other “witnesses” in the Fourth Gospel; in fact, it is difficult to be precise about what role she plays.

Mary is unique in the narrative. I think that we go in the wrong direction if we insist on establishing a role for her; she is like on one else, which might be the point. Instead of role, the issue seems to be one of status. Her status rests on several criteria: 1) courage: presence at the cross; 2) attention on the body of Jesus, even attempt to touch/hold it.; 3) being called by name; and 4) recipient of the most significant information about Jesus.

Why is status more important than role for Mary? On the one hand, if we insist on ascribing to her a role, it would seem to end as soon as it started. Having fulfilled Jesus’ command to “go and tell my brethren,” now what? What duties has she? What audience will she subsequently address? Roles have time limits of a sort, but status does not. Once a “beloved” of Jesus, always a “beloved” of Jesus. Once fortunate to receive a selected disclosure of the highest order, always a favored one. We mentioned above four criteria for high status, and there is no doubt that she enjoys exceptionally high status.47

We have argued that what one knows serves as an excellent index of one’s status. Mary Magdalene knows unique knowledge of extraordinary importance. From the earliest parts of the narrative, the most important piece of information concerns knowledge of whence Jesus comes and whither he goes. Most characters struggle with this problem. In two key places, the prologues in 1:1-18 and 13:1-3, we are told that Jesus comes from God (whence) and returns to God’s bosom (whither, 1:14,18; 13:1-3). Only insiders can accept this; to outsiders it is a blasphemous claim. Whence? Jesus himself tells characters that he comes from, that is, descends from, heaven, whether they understand it or not: “no one has ever ascended but the one who first descended from heaven” (3:13); “I am the bread which came down from heaven” (6:38, 41); “king. . .for this I have come into the world” (18:37). Others have clues and arguments about his “whence,” some insightful (“if this man were not from God. . .,” 9:33) or misleading (“son of Joseph,” 6:42) or biased (“what good can come from Nazareth,” 1:46; “no prophet will come from Galilee” 7:26-27, 41-42, 52), or shallow (“a teacher come from God,” 3:2). Whither? Jesus promises a vision of himself when he has returned whither he came: “You will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of man” (1:51). Again it is Jesus who remarks, “What if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before?” (6:62) and he prays to be “glorified in your presence with the glory which I had with you before the world was made” (17:5). How hard it is for outsiders to get this straight, for when Jesus says “I go to him who sent me. . .where I am you cannot come” (7:33-34), some interpret this as departure for the Dispersion (7:35) or even suicide (8:22). Hence, only Jesus knows “whence I have come and whither I am going” (8:14). But by telling Mary that “I am returning to my Father and your Father,” he provides this Mary with knowledge about “whence” and “whither” for his “whence” is his “whither”: he is returning whence he came. This, we maintain, is more significant than any role she might play.

Simon Peter

In the synoptics Peter plays the role of “fisher of men,” i.e., an agent of recruitment of outsiders and “rock” upon which Jesus builds his assembly (Matt 16:16). With the Twelve Jesus authorizes him to say and do what Jesus said and did: preach the Kingdom, heal and exorcize (Mark 3:13-15). All consideration of Peter’s role is muted or absent until 13:4-38 and 21:1-19. The purpose of Jesus’ washing of Peter’s feet is to transform him from ordinary to extraordinary disciple. No mere cleansing rite, this should transform him to a new status, that is, the status of an elite disciple who is willing to lay down his life for Jesus.48 But shortly Peter fails and must wait for another time to assume this status. Yet we learn that Peter ambitions to have the role of shepherd, i.e., successor of the Noble Shepherd. This becomes evident in the similarities of the dialogue at the beginning and ending of the scene in John 13. Recall that the qualification for a “noble” shepherd is that he lay down his life for his sheep (10:11, 15).

13:6-8 13:36-38
"Lord, do you wash my feet?"(13:6) "Lord, where are you going?"(13:36)
Jesus answered “What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand" (13:7) Jesus answered him: “Where I am going you cannot follow now, but afterward you will follow" (13:36b)
Peter said to him:"You shall never wash my feet" (13:8) Peter said to him: "Lord, why cannot I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you" (13:37)
Jesus answered him:“Unless I wash you, you have no part in me"(13:8) Jesus answered: “Will you lay down your life for me?
The cock will not crow, until you have denied me three times" (13:38).

As we fast forward to John 20-21, we see that the traditional role of “fisher of men” seems to be in view. Simon gathers others to go fishing with him – his initiative, his role. Blessed with an extraordinarily huge catch, Simon leads the way by “hauling the net ashore full of large fish” (21:11). Seemingly he is confirmed in his role of chief fisherman, a role directed to those outside the group. Next when Jesus serves them fish and bread. While the text does not explicitly say that Peter participated in serving this meal, the fact is that he will immediately be told to “Feed my lambs. . .Feed my sheep.” Thus even in the beach breakfast scene, Peter is an apprentice host, leaning from Jesus how to “Feed my lambs.” Finally, Jesus purifies him of his failure by a triple question about loyalty, balancing Simon’s triple denial. When purified, Simon is qualified to play the role of group shepherd, another inward looking role.49 Thus, Simon’s roles are successively identified: fisherman, food provider, and shepherd. If explicit authorization is important, Jesus commands and so commissions Peter three times to take the role of shepherd. And by the end of the narrative, Peter plays even the role of “noble” shepherd of the group.50

But status? Does Peter enjoy respect and status? Until John 20, very little is said of Peter that indicates high status; on the contrary, a veritable avalanche of negative status markers buries him. If comparisons are made, he is inferior to Andrew who called him. The Beloved Disciple surpasses him in loyalty, knowledge, closeness to Jesus, etc. But as the story ends, although Peter is commissioned to an important role, it remains unclear what kind of status this traditional figure enjoyed in the non-traditional Johannine group.51

Beloved Disciple.

Whoever this person was, does he have a role in the narrative? Reclining so close to Jesus at the supper and having access to the identity of the traitor are important status markers, but not indicative of a role. At the cross, however, Jesus authorizes him for a most significant role, namely “son” to his mother. The Beloved Disciple assumes the role of the male formally responsible to protect the honor, reputation and well being of this important female. This role, moreover, is strictly an internal role within the circle of disciples.

The Beloved Disciple, moreover, has another role, namely sub-broker of Jesus to the disciples. Brokers mediate between patrons and clients goods such as power, loyalty, material gains, and information. One would expect in this gospel to find an emphasis on the group’s most important commodity, that is, commitment (“beloved,” “son”) and information (revelations, manifestations, etc.) The Beloved Disciple is uniquely positioned on Jesus’ bosom to ask him for significant information, the identity of the traitor (13:25); his role is that of go-between as he seeks the answer to Peter’s question from the one who knows all. He brokers entrance for Peter into the palace of the high priest (18:15-18), and he brokers for Peter and others the recognition of Jesus on the shore (21:7). He is not formally authorized as the purveyor of information, but that again may be irrelevant. As a charismatic figure, he just has knowledge, insight and wisdom.

As regards status, the Beloved Disciple is identified by many, significant markers. First, at his initial appearance, he was “lying close to the breast of Jesus” (13:23), and since physical proximity to Jesus is a significant status marker, he begins exceptionally well placed. Moreover, he is privy to restricted information, the identity of the traitor. Third, he manifests courage and loyalty superior to all other disciples, first by entering the high priest’s palace and by standing publicly in support of Jesus at his cross. The only disciple there, he puts his life on the line for Jesus. Fourth, he displays alacrity, running fast to the tomb; after seeing all that Simon saw, he has great insight (“he saw and he believed,” 20:8). He believed despite seeing nothing that Peter had not seen; hence Jesus’ makarism declaring those “blessed” who believed without seeing (20:29) would extend to him. He is, then, a “blessed” as well as a “beloved” one. Fifth, a rumor in the group suggested that the Beloved Disciple would not die (21:22). The very hint that so eminent a person would escape death and “remain” until Jesus comes would distinguish him as a unique, remarkably favored disciple. Finally, his role as “son” to Jesus’ mother is a very high status role.

Summary and Conclusions

The following chart gathers the bits of information about the characters surveyed and assesses it comparatively. From this, we seek to confirm roles and statuses argued earlier. After this summary, we will try to rank in importance the characters in the gospel in terms of their statuses.

Person Authorization Status Roles & Duties Duration
Samaritan Woman None; “Go, call your husband and come here” (4:16) is not authorization for a role Elite, but medium Status: Markers = 1. what she comes to know, 2. her recruitment of others, 3. her remarks about Jesus, 4. symbolism as a character who upsets expected norms. Role: 1. “wife” 2. recruiter and news bringer Duties: food preparation duration: quickly terminated (4:42)
Disciples “I send you to reap that for which you did not labor; others have labored” (4:38; 17:18)
“For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (13:15)
“As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (20:21-23)
High status: but someone has already sown the word; they are in second place
High status: imitation of Jesus; only leaders perform this action
High status:
Extension of Jesus’ role.
Roles: 1. agents to the insiders; 2. sub-brokers of Jesus.
Duties: “to reap,” to allow others to enter

Roles: 1. servants of hospitality: a role restricted to leaders of group
Duties: to extend hospitality ; to perform servant tasks

Roles: agents who control entrance and exit of group
Duties: to serve as gatekeepers vis-a-vis insiders; guardians of group’s boundaries

Continues over time



Continues  over time




Continues over time

Man Born Blind


Ambiguous status: markers =  positive 1. long encounter with risen Jesus; 2. seeks physical presence of Jesus; 3. finally becomes “shepherd” and even “noble” shepherd;   negative: 1. called second; 2. lukewarm acknowledgment of Jesus; 3. failure in washing trans-formation ritual; 4. withdraws all loyalty to Jesus in courtyard

Role: not just fisherman and table server, but  shepherd

Duties: to be Noble Shepherd (pasture; defense)52; to lay down his life for the sheep (21:18-19)
Continues over time
Beloved Disciple


“Woman, behold your son. . .Behold your mother” (19:26-27)
Very high status 1. physical contact with Jesus; 2. secret knowledge of the traitor; 3. courage and loyalty at Jesus’ death; 4. “blessed” because he believed and did not see; 5. alone recognizes the Risen Jesus; 6. rumor that he will not die

Role:   fictive kin as “son” of Jesus’ mother

Duties: honor, protect and defend the mother of Jesus


as long as the mother of Jesus lived

From these data we distill the following information about roles. Based on the persons examined in this study, we judge that formal roles within the Jesus group were few and of modest significance: witness, agent, son (to Jesus’ mother), prophet, fisherman and shepherd, along with informal roles such as recruiter and news bringer. Only the witnessing of the man born blind is directed to outsiders; all other roles look to insiders already within the group. We conclude, then, that roles were not important in the group Far more significant for the Johannine group is status.

As regards status, we have come to identify the following markers of status in the Fourth Gospel.

  1. reception of revelations and Christophanies (1:51; 9:34-36; 20:16-18),
  2. disclosure of esoteric information (10:25; 14:1-17:25; 20:17),
  3. labeled “beloved” by Jesus (Martha, Mary and Lazarus and BD),
  4. praise from Jesus (4:16) and being labeled as “blessed” (13:17; 20:29),
  5. bold public confession (man born blind vs his parents, 9:22)
  6. loyalty and faithfulness (Mary Magdalene, BD at the cross),
  7. recipient of unique healing (man born blind, Lazarus),
  8. imitation of Jesus; suffering for him (12:9-11, 24-25),
  9. fictive kin: son and mother (19:26-27)
  10. actual/attempted physical contact with Jesus (Mary 12:1-8; BD, 13:25, Magdalene, 20:17),
  11. never dying (21:19-23)

But let us ask another question: Who’s Who in the Johannine Group? Can we discern an order of precedence? It seems easy to distinguish three levels of status of Johannine characters: elites, traditional figures, and marginal or fringe dwellers. At the top of the pyramid we find the following elites, who are positioned, not because of any role played, but according to status markers. I feel confident about ranking the Beloved Disciple, Mary Magdalene and the man born blind as enjoying very high status; but it becomes difficult to rank the other elites.

  1. Beloved Disciple: physical closeness to Jesus; special knowledge; courage – cross; “son” of Jesus’ mother; perhaps death-less
  2. Mary Magdalene: courage; physical closeness to Jesus; called by her own name; special manifestation; revelation of the most elite knowledge
  3. Man born blind: unique healing; forensic witness for Jesus; bold, public speech on Jesus’ behalf; suffers for Jesus; receives a Christophany
  4. Lazarus: beloved disciple; recipient of greatest sign; targeted for death because of Jesus
  5. Martha: beloved disciple; special knowledge but modest acknowledgment of Jesus
  6. Mary: beloved disciple; physical closeness (anoints feet)
  7. Other characters display admirable characteristics, but weaknesses as well.

  8. Thomas: knowledge (non receptive interlocutor with Jesus: 11:15; 14:5); physical closeness (demands to touch Jesus’ hands and side); confession, “My Lord and My God”
  9. Nathanael: overcomes difficulties to come to Jesus, praised by Jesus, revelation from Jesus, acknowledgment of Jesus, promised a Christophany
  10. Peter: never credited with being “in the know”; cowardice canceled by confession of loyalty; eventually becomes “shepherd”; dies to glorify God
  11. Andrew: first disciple; recruits others; not noticeably “in the know”; no bold speaking about Jesus
  12. Philip: recruits another; brokers “the Greeks” to Jesus; receives special information
  13. Samaritan Woman: never quite knowing what Jesus is saying; always challenging Jesus; delivering an ambivalent confession of Jesus
  14. Finally, the narrative tells of still other characters who lack courage, learn nothing from encountering Jesus or fail in converting “sign” into faith.

  15. Nicodemus: earthly knowledge; total failure to understand Jesus, lacks courage (at night)
  16. Joseph of Arimathea: no courage (“secret disciple,” 19:35)
  17. Crippled man in 5:1-10: no loyalty to Jesus as a result of his healing; ultimately a “witness” against Jesus to Jesus’ enemies.

Gathering the threads of this investigation, certain conclusions suggest themselves. First, in general, roles seem considerably less important than status. Moreover, with the exception of forensic witnessing, the roles are directed to insiders, as opposed to synoptic and Pauline apostolic roles to spread the gospel to outsiders. They are, moreover, roles involving speech of some sort. This relates to the scholarly discussion that the Fourth Gospel, a maverick gospel, in which its elites of high status stand in opposition to or superior to traditional figures such as the apostles, especially Peter. One wonders, moreover, if there is a tension between what the earthly Jesus did and what the Risen Jesus, for the disclosure of remarkable secrets and the demonstration of public courage are most evident in Jesus’ death and resurrection. There can be no denying that knowledge, selected disclosure, revelations, and Christophanies are the coin of the realm: persons can be ranked in terms of what they know, when they know it, and how they know it. And “knowing” in this gospel is not a role but a status marker.


1. Craig R. Koester, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel. Meaning, Mystery, Community (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1995) 32-73.

2. Raymond  Collins, “Representative Figures in the Fourth Gospel,” Downside Review 94 (1976) 26-46 & 118-32.

3. R. Alan Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress 1983) 10-48.

4. Even anonymous characters are studied, such as David R. Beck, “The Narrative Function of Anonymity in Fourth Gospel Characterization,” Semeia    143-58; W. W. Watty, “The Significance of Anonymity in the Fourth Gospel,” ExpT 90 (1979) 209-12.

5. For example, in Arthur Droge’s article (“The Status of Peter in the Fourth Gospel: a Note on John 18:10-11,” JBL 109 [1990] 307-11), he uses the term “status” only in the title and never in the text, so it is difficult to know how he understands it.

6. See Raymond E. Brown, “The Role of Women in the Fourth Gospel ,” TS 36 (1975) 688-99, reprinted in Community of the Beloved Disciple (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1979])183-98; Elizabeth S. Fiorenza (In Memory of Her [New York, NY: Crossroads, 1985] 326, 332-33) labels Magdalene an “apostolic witness,” whereas in another place she calls her the “apostle to the apostles, “Mary Magdalene: Apostle to the Apostles,” USQJ, April 1975, pp. 22ff; this is similar to the description of her by Colleen M. Conway (Men and Women in the Fourth Gospel. Gender and Johannine Characterization [Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 1999] 198) who says of her: “It is clear that the message Jesus gives to Mary to proclaim is the Johannine kerygma. . .she assumes the role of mediator.” See Sjef van Tilborg, Imaginative Love in John (Leiden: Brill, 1993) 200-06.

7. Turid Karlsen Seim, “Roles of Women in the Gospel of John,” in  Lars Hartman and  Birger Olsson, eds.,  Aspects on the Johannine Literature (Uppsala: Almquist & Wiksell,1986) 56-73, citation from p. 56.

8. A. Paul Hare, “Groups: Role Structure,” IESS 6.283. Bruce Malina (“Social Levels, Morals and Daily Life,” in ed. Philip F. Esler, The Early Christian World [London: Routledge, 2000] 1.371) clarifies this remark, “ The roles that an individual plays point to statuses within the overall system. In this sense social roles point to stereotypical, presumed entitlements and responsibilities.”

9. Hare, “Groups: Role Structure,” 6.283. 

10. Raymond Scupin and Christopher De Corse, Anthropology and Global Perspective, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995)  280. It is commonly said that statuses are polar or reciprocal; any particular status always implies at least one other to which it is related, e.g., mother-child, employer-employee, doctor-patient.

11. Ralph H. Turner ( “Role: Sociological Aspects,” IESS 13.552) defines role as “[I]t provides a comprehensive pattern for behavior and attitudes; it constitutes a strategy for coping with a recurrent type of situation; it is socially identified, more or less clearly, as an entity; it is subject to being placed recognizably by different individuals; and it supplied a major basis for identifying and placing persons in society.”

12. Malina, “Social Levels, Morals and Daily Life,” 1. 371.

13. On the family of Jesus, see Sjef van Tilborg, Imaginative Love (Leiden: Brill, 1993)  and Jan G. Van der Watt, Family of the King. Dynamics of Metaphor in the Gospel according to John (Leiden: Brill, 2000) 304-40.

14. Raymond Scupin and Christopher DeCorse, Anthropology and Global Perspective (Englewood, NJ: Prentice Hall 1995) 280.

15.Andrew Abbott, “Status and Status Strain in the Professions,” AJS 86 (1981) 820. For an easy introduction to the meaning of status, see John J. Pilch, Introducing the Cultural Context of the Old Testament (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1991) 117-50.

16. “Satus”  has been defined as: “A quality entailing deference and precedence in interaction, a quality of professional or public honor. . .Status systems are generated by bases or dimensions of honor – power, wealth, knowledge. . .Status has come to be a synonym of any ‘position in a social system’. . .Whereas formerly superiority of status could mean any sort of hierarchical ordering -- of power, wealth, or honor -- to many it now refers only to esteem, prestige, honor, respect, that is, to various forms of evaluation. . . .What matters is not what you really are but what people believe you to be”  (M. Zelditch, “Status, Social,” IESS 15.250).

17. Paul Humphreys and Joseph Berger, “Theoretical Consequences of the Status Characteristics Formulation,” AJS 86 (1981) 954-55 and Malina, “Social Levels, Morals and Daily Life,” 369-80.

18. Robin M. Williams, American Society. A Sociological Interpretation. 3rd ed (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970) 42.

19. Diodor of Sicily, 9.10.1-4; Plutarch, Letter to Apollonius 116D-E, Dinner of the Seven Wise Men 164B-C, Talkativeness 511A-B; see Helen North, Sophrosyne. Self-Knowledge and Self-Restraint in Greek Literature (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1966).

20.  He will not allow others to praise him too much (Plutarch, Dinner of the Seven Wise Men 164C). For, as was popularly thought, “Fortune has a knack, when men vaunt themselves too highly, of laying them unexpectedly low and so teaching them to hope for ‘nothing in excess’ (µ?d?? ??an) Diodor of Sicily 15.33.3). The practice of moderation or “nothing to excess” was hallowed in Horace’s ode on “golden mediocrity” (Ode 2.10.1-12). See R.G.M. Nisbet  and Margaret Hubbard, A Commentary on Horace: Odes. Book II (Oxford: Clarendon, 1978) 160-61. See also Kurt Scheidle, Modus Optumum. Die Bedeutung des “Rechten Masses” in der römischen Literatur (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1993).

21. In the political world of Rome, the  stratification of males consisted of Emperor, senator, equestrian, decurio, citizen, subject, slave; in Judea, high priest, high priests, priests, Levites, landowners, peasants, artisans (Malina, “Social Levels, Morals and Daily Life, 372).

22. Malina,  “Social Levels, Morals and Daily Life,” 371-72.

23. One should reckon also the added status accruing to older members of society simply because they are old, and the lack of status of young people.  This is commonly expressed in discussions of pietas and e??ße?a; see also Thomas M. Falkner and Judith de Luce, eds., Old Age in Greek and Latin Literature (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1989); Tim G. Parkin, Old Age in the Roman World. A Cultural and Social History (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003); Thomas M. Faulkner, The Poetics of Old Age in Greek Epic , Lyrc, and Tragedy (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995); and Bessie Ellen Richardson, Old Age among the Ancient Greeks (New York: Greenwood Press, 1969).

24. For a record of the ancients on gender division, see Jerome H. Neyrey, “Jesus, Gender and the Gospel of Matthew,” in Stephen D. Moore and Janice C. Anderson, New Testament Masculinities, Semeia 45 (2003) 43-53.

25. Instructors in the rhetoric of honor describe the culturally specific values which are deemed praiseworthy: “Then, you will bring out the most important topic of the encomium, the achievements, which you will divide into the spirit, the body, and fortune – the spirit like courage or prudence, the body like beauty, swiftness, or strength, and fortune, like power, wealth and friends.” Apthonius (trans. Ray Nadeau, “The Progymnasmata of Apthonius in Translation,” Speech Monographs 19 [1952] 264-85) Aristotle: “The parts of virtue are justice, manly courage, self-control, magnificence, magnanimity, liberality, gentleness, prudence, and wisdom”Rhet. 1.9.5, trans by George Kennedy, Aristotle, On Rhetoric (Oxford: OUP, 1991) 80.

26. One’s reputation or worth may be either ascribed (bestowed, inherited) or achieved). This basic idea of honor informs the way status is evaluated: “Ascribed status is that which is inherited, such as sex, race, or ethnicity, or over time, age, and is crucial for defining the basic patterns of people’s lives [birth, physical features, genealogy]. Achieved status, on the other hand, is acquired through personal effort or chance, possibly from occupational or educational attainment.” [marriage, occupation, perceived acquisitions]  (Charlotte Wolf, “Status,” SSE,  826).

27.  For the structure of the social system of the Early Empire, see Géza Alföldy, The Social History of Rome (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988) 94-186. See also Ramsey MacMullen, Roman Social Relations (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974) 88-120.

28. Malina (“Social Levels, Morals and Daily Life," 370) identifies four ranking orders relative to our task: 1) the ranking structure of the non-elite quarters of a specific local community (e.g., Corinth or Alexandria); 2) separate ranking structures in small communities in specific localities inhabited by similar people (e.g., Judean communities in Hellenistic cities); 3) ranking structures covering the total regional society, of cities and of concern to persons and groups in regional central places (e.g., the tetrarchy of Herod and Agrippa); 4) an empire-wide tanking system (e.g., Roman elites, of little interest to most of the people in the empire.

29.   Robert Kysar (John, the Maverick Gospel [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1993] rightly named this document “maverick” not only for its antithetical stance to the synagogue, but also its apparent conflict with other Jesus groups. Thus it may not be just different from others, but emphatically so.

30. The duties of a wife/mother are consistent among Greco-Romans and Judeans: "These are works which the wife must perform for her husband: grinding flour and baking bread and washing clothes and cooking food and giving suck to her child and making read his bed and working in wool" (m. Ket. 5.5). “Before anything else I should speak about the occupations by which a household is maintained. . .to the wife those which have to do with spinning and the preparation of food, in short, those of a domestic nature” (Hierocles, On Duties (4:28.21ff).

31. Sandra Schneiders, “Women in the Fourth Gospel and the Roles of Women in the Contemporary Church,” BTB 12 (1982) 39.

32. One thinks of Theophrastus’ characters and the stock characters of Greek and Roman comedy (i.e., ??a???e?a and ?e??d???a); the premise of Plutarch’s “On Inoffensive Self-Praise” is that self- promotion is a serious social affront. In the first line of the writing it says: “It is agreed that to speak to others of one’s own importance or power is offensive” (538A); “praise of ourselves is for others most distressing” (539D). It provokes envy and so discord. Now the Samaritan Woman is not “praising herself,” but claiming an honor utterly and hopelessly beyond her status.

33. Peder Borgen, “God's Agent in the Fourth Gospel," in ed. Jacob Neusner, ed.,  Religions in Antiquity (Leiden: Brill, 1968) 137-48; A. E. Harvey, “Jesus as Agent,” in eds. L. D. Hurst and N. T. Wright, The Glory of Christ in the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987) 239-250). See Karl H. Rengstorf, Apostleship (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1952) 11-24.  George W. Buchanan, “Apostolic Christology,” SBLSP 1986: 172-82.

34. Nowhere in the Fourth Gospel do we find the kind of formal commissioning of the disciples that we find in Matt 10:5-15; Mark 6:7-13 and Luke 9:1-6. There the disciples repeat Jesus’ specific message, “The Kingdom of God is at hand,” and they imitate Jesus by being mighty in world and deed. None of this is found in the Fourth Gospel.

35. See Richard L. Rohrbaugh, “Gossip in the New Testament,” in John J. Pilch, ed.,  Social Scientific Models for Interpreting the Bible (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2001) 239-59; Deborah Jones, “Gossip: Notes on Women’s Oral Culture,” Women’s Studies International Quarterly 3 (1980) 193-98; Don Handelman,” Gossip in Encounters: The Transmission of Information in a Bounded Social Setting,” Man 8 (1973) 210-27; Sian Lewis, News and Society in the Greek Polis (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).

36. Schneiders, “Women in the Fourth Gospel ,” 39.

37. See Jerome H. Neyrey, " What's Wrong With This Picture? John 4, Cultural Stereotypes of Women, and Public and Private Space," BTB 24 (1994): 83-84, 86-88.

38. All agree that she should be understood as the antithesis of Nicodemus; see Mary Magdalene Pazdan, “Nicodemus and the Samaritan Woman. Contrasting Models of Discipleship,” BTB 17 (1987) 145-58.

39. The Fourth Gospel differs from the synoptics on several points: whereas in them Jesus often “sends”(?p?st????, (Matt 10:5, 16) them and even calls them “apostles” (?p?st????, Mark 3:14; 6:30; Luke 6:13; 9:10; 17:5; 22:14; 24:10), in the Fourth Gospel ?p?st???? is used primarily of Jesus . It is used only in an extended sense once in regard to the disciples: “”A servant is not greater than his master, nor is he who is sent greater than the one who sent him” (13:16).   “Apostle,” then, is a restricted term, whose primary referent is Jesus.

40. Only in one place are the disciples referred to as “witnesses”; the Spirit will “bear witness” to Jesus and “you are also witnesses, for you have been with me from the beginning” (15:27).

41. This gospel restricts imitation of Jesus to the disciples in terms of washing the feet of one another ( “I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you,” 13:15) and laying down one’s life (“love one another as I have loved you,” 15:12). The focus is inward, toward insiders.

42. Borgen, “God’s Agent in the Fourth Gospel,”122 and Buchanan, “Apostolic Christology,” 172-82.

43. Martha will shortly play the respectable role of “diakonos” at the meal when the three Beloved Disciples host Jesus (12:2). This sounds quite similar to Luke’s portrayal of Martha in Luke 10:41-42. In John, however, Martha is both meal server and conversation partner with Jesus, whereas Mary is Jesus’ interlocutor in Luke.

44. Neyrey, An Ideology of Revolt, 21-29, 87-92.

45. The exchange between Jesus and Martha in 11:38-40 confirms this imperfect knowledge; Jesus said that “I am the resurrection,” which Martha has quickly forgotten when the tomb is to be opened.

46. Buchanan, “Apostolic Christology,”  179-81.

47. Martin Hengel (“Maria Magdalena und die Frauen als Zeugen,” in Martin Hengel and Peter Schmidt, eds.,  Abraham unser Vater. Juden und Christen im Gespch ber die Bibel [Leiden, E.J. Brill, 1963] ) argues that Mary enjoys very high status, among the female disciples, that is, she has the same priority among the female disciples that Peter does among the males: she is mentioned in all the lists of female witnesses, and especially first in the synoptics. Status, but not role.

48. Jerome H. Neyrey, "The Footwashing in John 13:6-11; Transformation Ritual or Ceremony?" in L. Michael White and O. Larry Yarbrough, eds., The Social World of the First Christians. Essays in Honor of Wayne A. Meeks (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995) 206-9.

49.See A. H. Maynard, “The Role of Peter in the Fourth Gospel,” NTS 30 (1984) 531-47 and Conway, Men and Women in the Fourth Gospel, 163-77.

50.  Jerome H. Neyrey, “The ‘Noble’ Shepherd in John 10: Cultural and Rhetorical Background.” JBL 120 (2001) 267-80.

51. An introduction to this problem may be found in Raymond E. Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple, 81-84.

52. Although the tradition knows of an anonymous disciple drawing a sword in the garden, the Fourth Gospel identifies this figure as Simon Peter; hence he is showcased as trying to defend Jesus, one of the marks of a shepherd; yet he is rebuked for this and Jesus remains the shepherd to negotiates the escape of his disciple/sheep (18:8-9).

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