. The Rhetoric of the Gospels
. The Rhetoric of the Gospels
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter starts with a brief description on how the New Testament came about after the Old Testament and what the consequences behind that establishment were. The four important Gospels of Mark, Luke, Matthew, and John and their contribution towards rhetorical standards are examined. The levels of styles related to these Gospels i.e. the elegant style of Luke, the elevated style of John, the forceful style of Matthew, and the plain style of Mark are highlighted here. The descriptions of the rhetorical unit of each Gospel are addressed. The latter part of the chapter covers the four great rhetorical problems involved in the Gospels.
The canon of the New Testament was established by Councils of the Church in late antiquity. Whether consciously determined or not, the order assigned to the books is interesting, for it is consistent with conventions of rhetoric as taught in the schools. First come the Gospels, which proclaim the message; then the narrative of Acts, which describes its reception; then the epistles, which may be viewed as arguing out interpretations of the message; and finally the Apocalypse, as a dramatic epilogue. The order of the four Gospels probably reflects what the Church thought was the chronological order of their composition and is consistent with Eusebius' reports on that subject. But it is also rhetorically effective in that Matthew, with his introductory genealogy, account of Jesus' birth, and extended speeches, gives a comprehensive initial picture of Christianity and links it to the Old Testament; Mark, with his emphasis on what Jesus did, approximates a narration; Luke works out details and smoothes over problems to create a plausible whole; and John supplies a moving epilogue. Finally, the arrangement of each Gospel tends toward an oratorical structure. Each has some kind of proem, some narration of events, if not of the early life of Jesus, at least of the beginnings of his ministry in the encounter with John the Baptist, an exposition of his teaching leading to an account of the crucifixion, and the joyful resurrection as epilogue. Discussion of the genre of the Gospels is irrelevant to our purpose—only Luke shows any awareness of classical genre—in that all genres are rhetorical: they are attempts to find a structure and a style which will accomplish the (p.98) objectives of the author. In terms of the theory of four kinds or levels of style set forth in Demetrius' treatise On Style, Mark may be said to adopt die plain style, Luke the elegant style, John the elevated style, and Matthew the forceful style. A classical rhetorician probably would have regarded all four Gospels as lacking literary merit, with the possible exception of some passages in Luke or John, but Augustine and other Christians came to see that such judgments result from a rather arbitrary definition of grammatical, rather than rhetorical, standards.
The rhetorical unit of each Gospel can be taken to be the received text, though there are of course some doubtful passages such as the two endings of Mark, and John 7:53–8:11. The rhetorical situation must be specified separately for each Gospel, in terms of the audience to which it is addressed. Matthew appears to be addressed to a Jewish audience familiar with the law and the Scriptures, probably at least partially converted to Christianity but needing a fuller statement of the relationship of the new faith to the older tradition. It is sometimes thought that his work is addressed to catechumens. Mark is seemingly addressed to devout Christians who want a written account of the sayings and deeds of Jesus in simple terms that they can understand and use in their life and worship. Luke expressly writes (1:1–4) for the converted, supplying additional details of the story of Christ, and in contrast to Matthew addresses an audience including gentiles. John states (20:31) that he writes to convert; thus he apparently hoped for some readers not yet Christian, or perhaps more accurately, not fully acknowledging Christ in the terms understood by himself, but he may also have sought to provide a community of which he was a part with a justification for their special view of Christianity.
Because of their differences in purpose and in audience, the rhetorical problems of the evangelists differ. They do, however, in different ways, address four great rhetorical problems of biblical Christianity which have continued to be major objections to the Christian faith. The first of these is that the Jews, and especially the Jewish religious establishment of Palestine, (p.99) despite expectation of a Messiah, did not accept Jesus as that Messiah (nor do they two thousand years later). Matthew in particular grapples with this problem, but it can be found in the other Gospels as well. The general approach taken is to stress the fact that Jewish prophecy itself included statements indicating that the Messiah would not be received by his own people. This explanation bred serious philosophical problems in that it perpetuated in Christian theology an arbitrary quality in God which might seem inconsistent with the definition of him as creator of all things and source of light, life, and love. But the evangelists, with the partial exception of John, are not philosophers, and they and their audience accepted a polarization of those who were saved and those who were lost. It was endemic to the world as they saw it.
A second problem for biblical Christianity was that the end of the age prophesied by Jesus as soon to occur had not taken place a generation after Jesus' death, at least not in the terms in which he seems to describe it. The most vivid treatment of the issue is that given in Mark 13, which stands out in contrast to Mark's usual style in reporting the sayings of Jesus. The passage is cast specifically in terms of the coming destruction of the temple, an event which of course did take place at the hands of the Romans in A.D. 70 and which may have been anticipated, unless the passage is a later addition to the Gospel reflecting knowledge of the fact. But Mark 13 ends by stressing diat the time of cataclysm is unknown; Christians must simply keep watch. Luke seems to push the event off to a distant future time; John stresses eschatology as realized in the present.
A third problem, for a modern audience, is the lack of historical verification of the Gospel account. In the famous words of Edward Gibbon, “Under the reign of Tiberius, the whole earth, or at least a celebrated province of the Roman empire, was involved in a preternatural darkness of three hours. Even this miraculous event, which ought to have excited the wonder, the curiosity, and the devotion of mankind, passed without notice in an age of science and history” (Decline and Fall of (p.100) the Roman Empire, chapter, ad finem). Matthew, Mark, and John almost completely ignore this problem, which did not concern their audiences. To them Christianity is something directly and personally experienced which requires no outside confirmation other than that found in Jewish prophecy. Luke (23:44–45) reports the three hours of darkness without comment, allowing it to contribute to the pathetic effect of the crucifixion; but earlier he has sought to link the events he describes to contemporary history by giving dates and carefully naming public officials. He alone, for example, notes (23:6–7) that Jesus of Galilee was legally under the jurisdiction of Herod and not that of Pilate. This concern with historical detail contributes a sense of veracity to his account.
Finally, there is the problem that though Jesus may have been an inspired prophet, a charismatic teacher, a healer of the sick, even a miracle worker, other such figures were not unknown in his time—Apollonius of Tyana being one example—and the crucial question is whether he was in any literal, special sense the Son of the Father and God. The approach of the synoptic Gospels to this problem is to establish Jesus' authority through prophecy, signs, and witnesses, then to portray him as asserting divinity, and to give the concept a final meaning in the account of the resurrection. It is interesting, however, how litde evidence for the resurrection they provide, especially in contrast to their initial efforts to establish Jesus' authority. In the shorter text of Mark, often thought to be the original version, there are no human witnesses at all to the resurrection. Matthew, rather defensively, tells the story that the guard at the tomb was bribed to say that the disciples had taken away the body and adds that this was commonly believed among the Jews (28:11–15). Even when the disciples saw the risen Jesus, “some doubted” (28:17), and their reaction to Jesus' final words is not reported. That the account in Mark was perceived to be rhetorically weak can be seen in the efforts of Luke to improve upon it. Both in his Gospel and in the opening chapter of Acts, he seeks verisimilitude by supplying additional detail. John, who directly tackles the problem of the divinity of Christ in his opening verses and throughout his (p.101) Gospel, provides the most powerful epilogue, especially the striking story of Thomas (20:24–29) and the fine concluding chapter on the encounter of Peter and the beloved disciple with the Lord. He seems to be saying that the evidence for the resurrection is not to be found in the multiplication of witnesses, but in the depth of personal experience of those who acknowledge it.
In meeting their rhetorical problems the evangelists had certain things to build upon which they fully exploit. These are first of all external evidence: the prophecies of the Old Testament fulfilled by Christ; the miracles performed by Jesus; and a considerable number of witnesses who could be cited, including John the Baptist, the disciples, some of whom came to be well known eventually, and other people who could be named. Their strongest internal evidence was probably the pathos inherent in Jesus' life, suffering, and resurrection, in the appeal of his character (an internal ethos complementing his authority), and in the doctrines of faith, hope, and love which they could teach. They had something to say which they knew their readers longed to hear and which had a mythopoeic force. Pharisaical opposition could be turned to advantage in that it could arouse sympathy and understanding for Jesus. Jesus' rejection of and by the world was an experience in which many of their readers could share. These points, therefore, could be effectively developed. Finally, the external evidence could be used as the basis for artistic argument, which could give a logical coherence to the account for those in the audience who appreciated it. In a word, the evangelists could solve their rhetorical problems by a careful use of ethos, pathos, and logos, in that order of priority.
The rhetorical characteristics of die Gospels are established in their opening chapters. Let us look at each briefly.
Of the four Gospels, Matthew's makes the widest use of all aspects of rhetoric. He arranges his Gospel into distinct parts which perform specific rhetorical functions, and he is concerned (p.102) not only to establish the ethos of Jesus' authority and the pathos of his suffering, but consistently to provide his readers with something close to logical argument. He appears to furnish reason to make what is said seem probable and to allow his audience to feel some intellectual security in his account. This audience was certainly Jewish and familiar with the Scriptures. Matthew's careful efforts at proof might reflect doubts in his audience that Jesus was the Messiah, but could also result from an intention to supply a work for catechumens.
Matthew begins with a clearly defined proem (1:1–17). It is an unusual proem which makes no specific appeal to the interest and sympathy of the audience, but it nevertheless performs that function. In the first verse he identifies Jesus as the son of David, the son of Abraham. These two names immediately attract the reader's attention and mark the subject as important. They also lay the basis for the repeated references to the fulfillment of prophecy in what will follow and for the authoritative ethos of Jesus. It is characteristic of Matthew that he is not content simply to assert the essential fact of Jesus' genealogy, but insists on “proving” it. This he does by reciting in verses 2–16 the entire genealogy. The list is commonly regarded as apologetic or polemical and as explicidy addressed to an audience which expected a Messiah from the house of David rather than from some other source. (The matter is well discussed by Marshall D. Johnson in The Purpose of the Biblical Genealogies.) There is probably some element of personal appeal present as well, for some of his readers would regard themselves as descended from or connected with individuals named in the genealogy. As if diis were not enough, Matthew then organizes the genealogy into three groups in verse 17: fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the Babylonian captivity, and fourteen from the Babylonian captivity to Jesus. The numerology shows that we have arrived at a very important point in history, well worthy of our attention.
Then come the stories of Jesus' birth, his encounter with (p.103) John the Baptist, his temptation, his gathering of the disciples, and his first miracles. Togedier these function as a narration and set the stage for the proposition, Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, but each also provides an important testimony of external evidence to establish the authoritative ethos of Jesus. We are shown that Jesus must be the Messiah because (1) his birth fulfilled the prophecy of the birth of the Messiah, (2) he was so acclaimed by John the Baptist, (3) he was so recognized by God, (4) he was tested and proved true by the devil, (5) the disciples immediately responded to his call, and (6) he could heal the sick. Taken together with the genealogy, these episodes provide documentary evidence, witnesses, and signs, major forms of external proof. Herod is introduced as a witness, for he recognizes the fulfillment of the prophecy of the Messiah and proves it by his grand-scale efforts to kill the child. That die disciples are witnesses to Jesus is seen in their immediate response to his call; they do not have to be persuaded, but intuitively recognize him. It is worth comparing Matthew's account of Jesus' meeting with John the Baptist to diat in Mark; Mark does not give the crucial words that make John a witness to Jesus: “I need to be baptized by you and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14).
Matthew also employs the internal proof of logical argument. He himself does not reason about the truth of what he presents, but the characters involved, including Jesus, do. He has them speak in enthymemes: they regularly support an assertion with a reason which helps to make it more comprehensible. The first enthymeme in Matthew occurs in the words of the angel to Joseph: “Do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit” (1:20). This is immediately followed by a second enthymeme, explaining why the savior is to be called Jesus. This is a logical angel who wants Joseph to understand and is not content simply to make authoritative announcements. Similarly, the magi explain to Herod why they have come (2:2), the priests and scribes explain to Herod how they know that Jesus will be born in Bethlehem (2:5), the angel explains to Joseph why he should (p.104) flee into Egypt (2:13) and again why he should leave (2:20), John the Baptist gives a reason why the people should repent (3:2), the devil explains to Jesus why he can safely throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple (4:6), and finally Jesus himself repeats the enthymeme of John, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (4:17). For all its miraculous events, Matthew's world is far more rational than diat described by Mark, who has little interest in such things. In many cases, the minor premise of the enthymeme is a scriptural quotation, The external evidence, which functions cumulatively to show that prophecy has been fulfilled in the birth of Jesus, is thus utilized to construct an argument internal to the text.
Once having established the ethical and logical basis of his narrative in chapters 2, 3, 4, Matthew can now proceed to an exposition of Jesus' teaching, which he does dramatically in the Sermon on die Mount. This can be said to function as a proposition for his Gospel as a whole. In terms of Matthew's rhetoric, its most important features are emphasis 011 the law, extensive use of enthymemes, and hostility to gentiles. Jesus' eschatology is implicit in what he says, but not clearly expounded to the crowd. Though the sermon fits well into Mat-thew's rhetoric, it does not follow that it is totally his creation. As John later points out (21:25), there was much that could be said about Jesus. Individual evangelists chose the material which most suited their needs.
The Gospel of Mark is an example of what may be called radical Christian rhetoric, a form of “sacred language” characterized by assertion and absolute claims of authoritative truth without evidence or logical argument. According to Eusebius (Church History 2.15), the Gospel of Mark originated in the request of Christian communities founded by Saint Peter to have a written account of the gospel to read when the apostle moved on to a new locality. This is not unlikely, for it is clear from the outset that Mark is addressing convinced Christians. (p.105) If the words “the Son of God” appearing in his first verse are genuine (the Greek text is in doubt), he simply asserts who Jesus is. In verses 2–3 he cites the prophecy of the coming of John, but otherwise in his opening chapters ignores the need Matthew felt for evidence from Scripture. His picture of John the Baptist is that of a prophet who asserts his vision, take it or leave it. In 1: 11 God authoritatively proclaims who Jesus is. The temptation by Satan is given as a fact but not utilized to prove anything. When Jesus begins to preach, his message is cast not as an enthymeme, not, as in Matthew, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” but as four authoritative assertions: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (1:15). This is followed by the authoritative calling of the disciples, who immediately respond. “Immediately” is one of Mark's favorite words and gives a forward movement to his account. The truth is immediately and intuitively apprehended because it is true. Some see it, others do not, but there is no point in trying to persuade the latter. This is the most radical form of Christian rhetoric. When Jesus performs his first miracle, the witnesses are “amazed” (1:27); they recognize truth but do not comprehend it rationally. The miracle is a sign of authority, as the crowd at once admits. No effort is made to include any picture of Jesus' early teaching as seen in the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain. This kind of explanation is irrelevant to Mark. When Jesus preaches in Mark it is in parables, which are directly apprehended.
There are enthymemes in Mark, but they are usually of a very simple sort, offering an obvious explanation and usually in his own voice. Simon and Andrew are casting nets, “for they were fishermen” (1:16). Many tax collectors and sinners are seated with Jesus, “for there were many who followed him” (2:15). Even Jesus in Mark occasionally uses such simple explanations: “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also; for that is why I came out” (1:38). In the parables, Jesus is of course employing an inductive method, and Mark, like other evangelists, shows him applying the law of contradictories: (p.106) “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; if he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made” (2:21). In die opening chapters of Mark the enthymeme which carries the greatest rhetorical force is that in which Mark explains why those in the synagogue at Capernaum were astonished at Jesus' teaching: “for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes” (1:22). The same enthymeme occurs in the same context in Luke (4:31–32), who doubtless took it from Mark. It appears in Matthew as well, but in a different context (7:29). This may mean that it was a commonplace used to describe reaction to Jesus and that its form is not specifically attributable to Mark. He is not attracted to it by its form, but because of its content: its picture of direct reaction to Jesus' power.
The question is likely to be asked whether rhetorical analysis can determine which Gospel, that of Matthew or that of Mark, is prior in composition and which evangelist may have used the other's work. Rhetorically it seems very unlikely that Mark could have used Matthew's account. That hypothesis requires the assumption that Mark read the Gospel of Matthew and reacted strongly against its rhetoric. He would then have composed his own version, using material from Matthew, but stripping it of its argumentation and amplification, and restoring the gospel to that radical rhetoric which he regarded as more genuine. There is no good model for that kind of redaction elsewhere; it is inconsistent with the traditions of the early Church about the origins of the Gospels, as preserved by Eusebius. And such a negative attitude toward his source might well have impelled Mark to write a preface warning readers to beware of the false tradition, or even have led him to distrust the wording of Matthew at every turn. All of this seems psychologically improbable, and thus Mark very likely represents the survival of a continuous tradition of radical rhetoric in the early Church, long associated with the apostleship of Peter. Paul certainly knew this tradition, but his own work represents a modification of it in the direction of rationaiizing. (p.107) Presumably the gospel preached by Apollos and also by the docetists went even further in this direction.
That Matthew might have recast Mark's account into a more rationalizing rhetoric is a better possibility. If so, he was seeking to adapt the gospel to an audience which in this, as in other respects, thought in different ways or had different needs. For any among his readers familiar with Mark, the preservation of some similarities of expression would have been reassuring and have helped to authenticate his work.
Luke opens his Gospel with a fine periodic sentence, immediately reassuring to an educated speaker of Greek. His addressee is the unknown Theophilus, apparently a person of some influence (kmtiste, 1:2) and bearing a Hetlenized name. What Luke promises to provide is a version of the gospel which differs from the many odiers (polloi, 1:1) in existence by its orderly narrative (kathexes, 1:3) and its exactness of detail (aknbos, 1:3; asphaleian, 1:4). He is writing for those already converted who want to know more. The words “that you may know the truth” (1:5) are somewhat misleading in the Revised Standard Version. Luke is not saying that other gospels are not true, only that he will follow a more rigorous narrative method and be more specific.
This purpose is immediately borne out by his account of the births of John the Baptist and Jesus. We are given names and dates and told exacdy what was said. It is difficult not to view the dialogue as an invention of Luke himself. He identifies no sources. Was there really a surviving oral tradition of, for example, what Elizabeth said when she realized she had conceived? Probably, like a Greek historian or biographer, Luke sought to recreate in his own mind what she would have said. This amounts to prosopopoeia, the exercise of the rhetorical schools in which a historical or mythological character is imagined in some situation and his or her feelings expressed (the (p.108) Heroides of Ovid are poetic examples). In the Magnificat (1: 46–55), Luke has based his composition on Hannah's prayer in ι Samuel 2:1–10, Luke's angels, like Matthew's, speak in enthymemes, but because they are more wordy and supply more detail, the enthymematic quality of their statements is less striking.
Since Luke appears to have used both Mark and a source common to Matthew, his rhetoric combines some of the qualities of each but mutes their tones. For example, he includes a genealogy of Joseph going all the way back to Adam (5:23–38), but unlike the genealogy in Matthew it performs little persuasive function in its context; it is part of his promise to provide detail and at most lends some historiographic credence to his overall narrative. Unlike the other evangelists, he claims to know something about Jesus' youth. His description of Jesus in the temple at the age of twelve (2:41–47) helps prepare the reader to understand Jesus' later skill in meeting the Pharisees. He amplifies Mark's account of the early period of Jesus' ministry with the Sermon on the Plain (6:20–49) and thus softens Mark's radical rhetoric, but he does not attribute to Jesus the emphasis on the law or the hostility to gentiles found in Mat-thew. In chapter 8 he also mutes the effect of both Matthew 13 and Mark 4. Luke is chiefly of interest here in that he shows what he thought would be meaningful to Christians a generation after Jesus' death: a more elegant presentation in better Greek, more biographical detail, and, as noted earlier, a fuller account of the period after the resurrection. Luke in the Gospel comes close to being a classical biographer, just as in Acts he comes close to being a classical historian.
The treatise On Sublimity, attributed to Longinus, identifies (section 8) five sources of bypsos, the quality of elevation or sublimity in great writing. The first and most important of these is the power to conceive great thoughts; second is strong, inspired emotion; the others are elevation in the use of (p.109) figures, especially figures of thought, in the choice of diction, and in the arrangement of words. Examples are drawn largely from the classical Greek poets, Plato, and Demosthenes, but in one passage (9.9) the author cites “the lawgiver of the Jews, no ordinary man, since he worthily grasped and expressed the power of the divine when writing at the very outset of his work, ‘God said,’ he says, What? ‘Let there be light, and there was; let there be earth, and there was.’” A Greek rhetorician who could see hypsos in Genesis could probably have caught a glimpse of it also in the Gospel of John, if he had known it.
John's elevated thought and style is evident from the first verse of his prologue, with its reminiscence of the opening of Genesis. It is not distinguished by figures of thought, but the other sources of hypsos can be identified: the conceptual power, the emotion, the diction, especially the metaphors, and the arrangement of the words, such as the chiasmus of the first verse.
John's prologue has some of the characteristics of a proem, more of a proposition. Nothing is told us about the author or his purpose in writing, but the passage attracts serious attention through its hypsos and its emphasis, which as we have noted earlier is a quality of seeming to mean much more than one says. Since the prologue can hardly be comprehended on first hearing, it is not a purely rhetorical composition. Many scholars regard it as a hymn sung in the community of which John was a member. John does not identify his audience, but one is implied in his choice of words: Hellenized Jews with some ability at abstract thought, familiar with the memra, or Old Testament word of God, and the logos, or divine reason of pagan philosophers, which had been taken up by Philo and other Jewish thinkers. It is these whom John would like to persuade or reassure that Jesus is to be identified with the logos and is the Son of God. Late in his Gospel (20:31) he clearly states that he writes to convert the nonbeliever.
Viewed as a proposition, the first fourteen verses set forth a sequence of at least five topics (they could be subdivided into a larger number), most of which are given development subsequently (p.110) in the Gospel. These topics are a series of definitions: the Word was God; God was the creator; God is life; God is light; the Word was made flesh. The topics are authoritatively enunciated with no attempt at proof, though the topic of light is given some amplification in verses 5 and 9. The authoritative ethos must be said to derive from God and to be intuitively recognized, since the author does nothing to establish his own authority. This intuitive grasp of the divine is central to John's rhetoric, as may be seen in 1:12: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become the children of God.” Such a one is the evangelist himself.
Although modern editions usually begin a new paragraph at 1:14, this verse begins with a connective and by the conventions of Greek writing should go with the preceding verse. It is in fact the climax of a sequence which leads from the creation to the incarnation. Verse 15, oddly treated as a parenthesis in the Revised Standard Version, is the opening of a sequence of three passages which elaborate and thus support John's thought. Verses 15–18 demonstrate intuitive judgment, which is at the heart of the religious experience as John understands it; 19–28 demonstrate the evidence from prophecy, which substantiates this intuitive judgment; and 29–36 resume the intuitive judgment and confirm it with a sign. The passage as a whole provides the witness of John the Baptist to the Messiah; it is followed by the witness of the disciples. In Mark the witness of John the Baptist and the disciples is only implicit, and in Matthew it is explicit, but briefly treated among other evidence. In John it is fully exploited. John the Baptist and the disciples are here powerful character witnesses to the truth of the message and to the ethos of the evangelist.
If 1:6–8 is genuine (it seems rather intrusive), it is intended to anticipate the importance of John the Baptist as a witness. This is then taken up in the opening words of 1:15, “John bore witness to him.” No scriptural prophecy is cited in John's recognition of Christ in die remainder of die verse, which is, however, cast as an enthymeme: “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, for he was before me.’” The recognition is immediate and intuitive, and the minor (p.111) premise of the enthymeme is an assertion of that fact. In 16–18 the evangelist then gives his commentary on John's proclamation, concluding with the words “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” The word for “made known” is exegesato, related to English “exegesis.” As the Father is known through the Son, so both are known through the evangelist; but the exegesis of each is based on revelation, on direct apprehension of truth. The evangelist's explanation is given as a series of assertions, like those in the prologue, and there are no enthymemes.
In 1: 19 we are told again that this is the testimony of John the Baptist. In confrontation with the priests and Levites he reiterates his perception of Christ, but this time supports his own role by scriptural citation, “as the prophet Isaiah said” (1:23). Once the intuitive recognition is made, the truth of the prophecy is understood.
In 1:29–34 John the Baptist again proclaims the recognition and this time supports it with a sign, the vision of the Spirit descending as a dove. Twice in the passage John says that he “bears witness.” The evangelist has placed this passage third in the sequence of recognition, but verse 33 reveals that John had earlier been prepared for the event. He remarks “I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’”
There follows the recognition by the disciples. It begins (1:35) with a repetition of John's perception of the Lamb of God, which provides an authority for the first two disciples, but they immediately grasp an understanding and follow Jesus. To none of the disciples does Jesus have to explain himself or provide any teaching, and Nathaniel hails him spontaneously as “the Son of God” (1:49). Conversation between Jesus and the disciples is realistic, even humorous, which invigorates and amplifies the seriousness of the underlying thought. The great mysteries are cast in a very human situation. There is direct rapport.
John 2–3 makes up a rhetorical unit which is framed by (p.112) incidents in Cana (2:1 and 4:46). Central position is given to a resumption of the testimony of John the Baptist (3:23–36), which is also framed by two incidents, the encounters with Nicodemus and the woman of Samaria. The most remarkable feature of this section is that although it corresponds to the account of the beginning of Jesus' ministry in the synoptic Gospels, it contains no mention whatsoever of Jesus' preaching in synagogues or speaking to crowds or engaging in any systematic exposition of his message: “Many believed in his name when they saw the signs which he did; but Jesus did not trust himself to them, because he knew all men and needed no one to bear witness of man; for he himself knew what was in man” (2:23–25). The main function of die passage is to demonstrate the signs, to present additional witnesses, and to allow exegesis of die evangelist's understanding of the significance of the events. This occurs in 2:11: “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” The editorializing in 2:17 and 2:22 involves a recognition of the meaning of Scripture. Verses 3:16–21 and 3:31–36 are probably also editorializing by the evangelist in his characteristic assertive thought and choice of word.
Finally, in the long discourse of chapter 5, the evangelist presents an exposition of theology by Jesus. Presumably he thought that by this point the reader would have apprehended the ethos of Jesus and would be ready for a more extended exploration of his thought. The discourse of 5:19–47 is thus John's equivalent of the Sermon on the Mount—but rhetorically it differs radically. The scene occurs at Jerusalem in a direct encounter with “the Jews.” Jesus' eschatology is made more explicit (5:25–29) than in Matthew. Nothing is said about the law, no commandments are given, no parables told. The technique is amplification of a small number of topics. At least two are identical to topics developed again in chapters 13–17, the relationship of the Son to the Father and the function of love, and they are in fact amplifications of the definitions in John's prologue. The imagery of light and darkness in the (p.113) prologue is taken up as well. Proof is offered in the citation of the witness of John the Baptist (5:33), in the works which Jesus does (5:36), and in the evidence of Scripture (5:39), and the working out of the topics often takes the form of enthymemes. The speech ends with an indictment of the Jews, that is, of the Jewish religious establishment, which is given the authority of Moses (5:45–47): “Do not think that I shall accuse you to the Father; it is Moses who accuses you, on whom you set your hope.” Then a hypothetical enthymeme: “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me.” Then its converse, turned into a rhetorical question: “But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” The formal topic of the more and the less underlies this. If the Jews cannot understand the written words of Scripture, which are less difficult to perceive, how can they recognize the greater reality of the Son of God?
John's Gospel is radical Christian rhetoric in its demand for immediate and direct response to the truth, but John makes far more demands than Mark on his readers in approaching the truth they are to perceive. He uses the forms of logical argument not so much as proof, as does Matthew, but as ways of turning and reiterating the topics which are at the core of his message. Like Luke, he supplies a fuller version of the gospel, but fuller in the sense of a deeper perception of the kerygma rather than a linear expansion of the contents.