Two weeks ago I posted a review of Douglas Estes’ (Lead Pastor of Trinity Church in Mesa, AZ, and adjunct professor at Phoenix Seminary) new monograph The Questions of Jesus in John: Logic, Rhetoric, and Persuasive Discourse (Leiden: Brill, 2013), which you can read here. As a friend, mentor, and former professor of mine I asked if he would be willing to do an interview about the book and he accepted. This isn’t the first time I have interviewed him. I did a two part interview titled “The Pastor-Scholar” wherein we discussed pastoring for those with an academic bent (read Pt. 1 and Pt. 2). This interview is about his new book and why he thought it was important enough to write. Enjoy!
What is the thesis of The Questions of Jesus in John: Logic, Rhetoric, and Persuasive Discourse?
The basic thesis of the book is to better understand why the Fourth Evangelist selects the questions of Jesus he does, and what those questions mean for the reader. Rather than take a theological or literary approach, I used linguistics and rhetoric as my primary method. Along the writing path, I found myself being constantly challenged by Jesus’ questions as I did the linguistic work. I’m always skeptical when scholars claim to find a pattern in a text (unless it’s poetic), but I did begin to notice how the questions of Jesus make a subtle and related rhetorical push throughout the gospel. By the end of my writing the book, the unwritten thesis is that the Fourth Gospel contains a number of rhetorical hooks, of which the asking of questions is one. This partly explains why it is one of the (if not the) most read text ever written.
Why did you write the book? Why do we need to give more attention to the questions of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel?
I wrote the book because I felt the issue of questions (and really, non-statements or non-propositions) is largely unexplored in NT studies. I also felt that many works that deal with questions in the biblical text are feel-good and short on any rigor. I felt it was interesting; and I really wanted my next book as a scholar to be something of an unofficial Habilitationsschrift for me (original, serious research monograph). As far as paying more attention to questions in John, the primary reason we need to do that is that John uses them. If we avoid parts of the narrative, such as question-asking, we will not understand the narrative as well as we could. To put it differently: The way in which many, many people approach the gospel is to see what they can dig out of it (truth, meaning, historical facts, or the lack thereof). In this I find skeptical scholars are actually very similar to faithful churchgoers: they’re all gleaners, gleaning the text for information. I’m not sure John was written to be gleaned in this way!
Did this study change how you understand the Fourth Gospel as a whole? If so, what would you say is the before-and-after impact?
Yes, in a subtle but meaningful way. Before writing the book, I felt I had a basic grasp on John—his modus operandi, so to speak. But with John there are always little riddles that scholars have noted for many years now. Some of those are not always obvious, as they are hidden behind the ‘simple language’ of John. Writing the book certainly changed my view on its rhetorical impact, and design. As I believe you mentioned in your review, an after-impact was that I am now definitely leaning much more to the view that John was more written for outsiders (though such a rigid, binary insider vs outsider view I find too coarse), based on John’s linguistic features especially with his non-declarative expressions like questions.
In the first and final chapters you allude to possible studies that may follow what you have done in this book. You said that there is far more research to be done in the area of questions, especially as questions relate to ancient narrative. If you could list a handful of topics you’d be excited to see some potential scholar engage (e.g., as a graduate thesis or doctoral dissertation) what would those be?
I would love to see someone tackle the way Paul uses questions (or non-declaratives) in order to build up his arguments. That’s a book waiting to be written. I also think there is much more linguistic work that can be done on the NT text—linguistics is somewhat a new field, and its (meaningful) impact on the study of the NT has been minimal. I also think that there are also many studies that could be written on the various forms of question-asking and argumentation in OT books. When I wrote the QJJ, the OT folks were far ahead of NT folks in the study of argumentation (my opinion), but they don’t appear to make much use of linguistics in this particular area (as far I can see). Someone could easily go back and do research on the way interrogatives were used in Hebrew, from a linguistic perspective. One thing I noticed in writing QJJ is that some languages (such as Latin) have more robust resources for handling non-declaratives than our Greek resources do.
In 2008 you wrote The Temporal Mechanics of the Fourth Gospel: A Theory of Hermeneutical Relativity in the Gospel of John that was published by Brill as well. What connection might we find between these two books? Another way of asking this question: Did your first book prepare you for this subsequent study?
Based on the titles, it may seem there is no connection; and in fact, it didn’t seem like it until near the end of writing the QJJ that I realized the connection myself. Temporal Mechanics did prepare me for the study as it gave me a lot of practice in identifying unstated assumptions, and then thinking outside the box without leaving the ranch. So the primary connection is looking at old problems in new ways. I would say that is one thing that is probably consistent in my writing.
Do you plan to write on the Fourth Gospel again? If so, would you be willing to provide a preview? If not, where do you plan on focusing your writing in the near future?
Yes! Unfortunately, since I’m still working out details with publisher(s), I can’t really give much of a preview now (sorry). I can say that I am busy at work. I can also say that my next book out will be a totally different direction, it’s called Better Habits, Better Life: How to Coach Yourself to Life Change, co-written with Matthew Reed and will be published by Cascade Books in 2014. It’s a practical-theological consideration of the nature of personal transformation and change in the spiritual life. Writing this is an enjoyable diversion, but soon back to John!