Estes, Douglas. The Questions of Jesus in John: Logic, Rhetoric, and Persuasive Discourse (Leiden: Brill, 2013). (Amazon.com; Brill.com)

44238I received a complimentary copy for review from Brill.

Douglas Estes values questions. It is his assertion that we are taught (in the words of Thomas Hobbes) that “only propositions have truth value.” Therefore, we “dismiss questions as not real or downplay questions as simply a subset of propositions or quirks of grammar.”[1] What if questions have value in and of themselves though? What if questions function to do more than introduce propositions?

In the Gospel of John questions are extremely important and often overlooked. We are familiar with the famous propositions of the Gospel from Jesus (e.g., “…before Abraham was, I am!” in 8:58), or the narrator (e.g., “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son…” in 3:16), but less aware of the value of the questions. Estes notes that the first words from Jesus in this Gospel are in the form of a question (“What do you seek?” in 1:38) as are the last words of Jesus (“What is it to you?” in 21:23).[2] Is this a coincidence?

If we ignore or undervalue the questions of the Fourth Gospel we may overlook some of the most important content. As Estes states, “The logic and rhetoric of questions (and other non-propositional sentence and clause types) can often convey more truth and meaning than naked propositions.”[3] Questions do more than advance the narrative. Questions are a central part of the narrative.

Message of the Book

Estes writes, “…the goal of this book is to examine the questions of Jesus in John in light of their logical, rhetorical, and linguistic virtues.”[4] He aims to dispel the notion that questions are “…simply grammatical vehicles helping to carry the narrative along, at times formulating theological assertions, much the same as any of Jesus’ propositions.”[5] Rather, questions are selected, carefully, and questions are aimed at the reader. Jesus may be asking a question of Nicodemus in the narrative while at the same time the narrator is using the question to ask the reader the same thing. Estes investigates all of the questions of Jesus in this Gospel and he notes that many of them tend to ask one of two main questions: “Whom do you seek?” and “Do you believe in me?” These questions are not merely part of the story.[6] These questions are directed at the reader.

Johannine scholars have debated whether or not this Gospel was written for “insiders” or “outsiders.” The Questions of Jesus in John makes the case that it is directed for outsiders more than insiders. The questions of Jesus ask the reader to provide his or her own answer about Jesus. The reader enters the narrative when questions are asked.

Summary of the Contents

Chapter 1: Why Questions serves as an introduction to the book. It is here that Estes sets forth his complaint that propositions are overvalued and questions are undervalued when studying ancient narrative. This includes a brief history of how propositions were exalted in western thought over questions. Then Estes explores how we might recognize questions in an ancient text that doesn’t provide us with the sort of grammatical markings with which we may be familiar when seeking questions. The chapter ends with a lists of values and uses for questions such as how a question “…elicits a pause and a momentary shift in the thinking of the reader (John 9:35).”[7] Since questions are dialogical it is the questions in a narrative that help the reader follow the narrator’s logic. Similarly, the narrator’s rhetoric is better understood when questions are given proper attention.

Chapter 2: Perspectives on Questions asks, “How do questions work?”[8] Since the Fourth Gospel is written at the intersection of Hebraic and Greco-Roman cultures Estes explores examples from the Old Testament, literature from early Judaism, rabbinic literature, and figures such as Zeno, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and many more. He does not treat these two spheres as absolutely distinct, but notes where Hebraic/Jewish literature was Hellenized. Then he transitions to modern thought on questions since, “…the second context for our study is modern logic and linguistics.”[9] This includes brief thoughts on questions as questions relate to answers, truth, and speech.

Chapter 3: How Questions Work begins to tinker the mechanics of questions. Contra propositions, which Estes frames as “binary” (true or false), questions are “modal”. In other words, questions invite multiple possibilities.[10] This chapter provides a thorough study of the grammar of questions. Is a question the same thing as an interrogative, always? How to questions relate to the so-called “rhetorical question” that seems to be making a declaration more than asking a question? What is the difference between a direct and indirect question?

Estes explores how many people have defined questions from the angles of syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. Then he shows readers how there are basic sets of questions such as polar questions (yes and no), variable question (many possible answers), set questions (limited possible answers), alternative questions (either/or). This chapter is very important to Estes’ overall thesis because he aims to prove to the reader than questions matter and if the reader doesn’t think critically about questions that important nuance will be ignored. This chapter ends with sections on how questions inform and how questions are rhetorical.

The foundation has been set. Now, if you are like me, you may wonder if your attention span can last through the chapters that introduce the theoretical aspects of questions. My answer is “yes, you can.” In fact, I read through the first third of this book in a single setting. Estes’ writing is very engaging and inviting. This isn’t to minimalize the complexity of the subjects he addresses, but rather to acknowledge the skill with which he does it.

Chapter 4: John’s Use of Questions introduces a shift in the focus of the book. Now Estes can begin to examine the Fourth Gospel, specifically. “Questions, unlike propositions, add dynamics to narrative.”[11] Imagine in the Gospel was propositions, only? Questions “inform the dialogue Jesus has with other Johannine characters.”[12] Questions show us more about the characters than propositions at times. Questions are used to persuade the readers as the narrator draws the reader into the narrative. In other words, the reader cannot objectively disconnect from a debate between Jesus and the authorities. No, if the authorities ask questions about the identity of Jesus, the reader is forced to ask the same questions. If Jesus asks a questions of another character the reader is forced to ask themselves about their own thoughts on Jesus.

Estes aims to invite the reader into uncharted waters. He admits that questions in ancient narratives are not given much attention. This is true of the Fourth Gospel, specifically. This book is not aimed at correcting this. Rather, this book has more modest aims: to “offer glimpses and examples of how we can better come to terms with the questions of Jesus in John.”[13]

Chapter 5: Open Questions, Chapter 6: Reflective Questions, Chapter 7: Decisive Questions, Chapter 8: Responsive Questions, and Chapter 9: Coercive Questions introduces the reader to a variety of different categories for questions. If you are wondering like I was wondering, “What do you means ‘categories’? Isn’t a question a question?” then this book is going to be very informative!)  As Estes introduces the reader to the various types of questions he is careful to show one may be able to recognize different questions. There may be semantic clues or syntactical clues to observe. Certain words tend to be found in certain types of questions.

It doesn’t make good sense to try to summarize here all the different questions found coming from Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, but I can provide an example of a place in Estes’ study that I found to be quite exciting. Estes provides a case study on John 18:34 which he labels as an “alternative question.” “Alternative questions stipulate the alternatives in the asking—either x or y (or z or more).” These sorts of questions allow for “freedom of decision within the possible alternatives.” For example, if I ask, “Do you want coffee, tea, Coke, or lemonade?” I am providing you with options while limiting your choices at the same time.[14] In John 18:33 Pilate notifies Jesus of the charge against him: “Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate gives Jesus a question that can be answered “yes” or “no” with varying consequences. Jesus doesn’t reply with an answer. Jesus replies with a question in v. 34. “Do you say this on your own behalf, or did others say this to you about me?” Estes notes, “Jesus sees Pilate’s trap and ups the ante with an even more wily trap. Instead of answering (or giving a non-answer), Jesus asks a response to Pilate’s question.” Jesus forces Pilate to decide whether to admit that he is making an accusation based on a charge fed to him by some of the Judeans or that he is charging Jesus with something without evidence of his own. The narrator doesn’t present Pilate as a fool though. Pilate answers with a question and so it goes until v. 37 when Jesus concedes: “…I am a king.”[15]

This is one of the more exciting examples of how questions function in the Fourth Gospel. The narrator presents us with a back and forth chess match—Jesus against Pilate—the “winner” being Pilate as Jesus answers, finally. If we read the Gospel seeking propositions without giving questions attention as well we will not read this Gospel to the fullest.

Chapter 10: Answers and Questions is a short concluding chapter where Estes summarizes the “big picture” of this book. He discusses how his study helps us understand the Fourth Gospel as “a dialectical Gospel” and “a rhetorical Gospel.” Then he offers students and scholars a way forward, emphasizing future possibilities for research.

Concluding Thoughts

First, this book should prove quite valuable to anyone studying the narrative of the Fourth Gospel. Several years ago I read R. Alan Culpepper’s Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design several years ago. It put in me a great appreciation for how the Fourth Gospel was composed to convey its message. Estes’ book renewed that appreciation. I confess that as a reader I have not stopped long enough to ask myself if the questions in this Gospel deserve my attention before I scurry along to the answer. I have been rebuked. The questions do matter.

Second, this book serves as an example of how a serious engagement with the linguistics and the rhetoric of this Gospel can be turned into a very beneficial study. Often, those who delve deeply into the “minutia” of Koine Greek will find that the audience for their book shrinks, drastically. Sometimes this inevitable, but at other times it may have to do with the author’s unwillingness to paint a “big picture” for the reader. Estes does not fail to show how questions make the Gospel. The reader will finish this book realizing that (1) this Gospel wouldn’t be as brilliant a piece of literature without the strategic use of questions and (2) it may be time to go back and read the Fourth Gospel again with “new eyes.” For those who have given their academic career to the grunt work of linguistic and rhetorical study this book may provide a model for how to share your work with a broader audience.

Third, this book may prove very useful for students aiming to do graduate or doctoral work with an emphasis in the Fourth Gospel. Estes’ engagement with the questions of John are an example of studying something important that often goes without notice from others. In fact, at the end of Chapter 1 Estes writes, “At best, Questions of Jesus in John will serve as a point of departure for further discussions of the use of questions in biblical texts.”[16] He returns to this point in his final chapter writing, “I believe further work in how questions inform the dialectical and rhetorical functions of ancient narrative would prove valuable to the study of all the gospels.” In general, “…much more work needs to be done on interrogatives.”[17] Estes believes there is land to be discovered. He has mapped the terrain, but he knows that there is more out there. Again, if you are a student who has interest in the Gospels, in ancient narrative, in rhetoric, or a variety of related fields this book may give you a head start on your research.

Personally, I found the book easy to read, though academically rigorous. Estes introduces a subject with which I have no expertise and I was able to follow his argument quite well. This book may not be one that you can add to your personal library easily. Brill is the publisher and Brill tends to market to libraries more than individuals. If you want to pay for it yourself it will cost about $140.00 (see links above). If you can get your local university or seminary library to purchase it that would be ideal and it would be a volume that would enhance said library.


[1] 5

[2] 1

[3] 9

[4] 13

[5] 163

[6] 165

[7] 10

[8] 14

[9] 27

[10] 33

[11] 58

[12] 59

[13] 66

[14] 118-119

[15] See 118-123 for Estes’ commentary.

[16] 13

[17] 171

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