Vernon K. Robbins

Sociorhetorical Interpretation

Emory Studies in Early Christianity

Rhetoric of Religious Antiquity

Religious Sites in Atlanta

Emory Department of Religion

Emory Graduate Division of Religion



John 9: Historical intertexture

The Gospel of John

Historical intertexture 'textualizes' past experience into 'a particular event' or 'a particular period of time'. Historical intertexture differs from social intertexture, then, by its focus on a particular event or period of time rather than social practices that occur regularly as events in one's life. J. Louis Martyn's study of the Gospel of John introduced analysis of historical intertexture to New Testament studies in a decisive manner toward the end of the 1960s (1968). Beginning with careful analysis of the drama that unfolds in seven scenes in John 9, Martyn gathered information in support of the view that the three statements about exclusion from the synagogue in John 9.22; 12.42; and 16.2a exhibit a historical event of recent occurrence in early Christianity. Martyn's procedure is implicitly socio-rhetorical, since it works carefully with the inner nature of the Johannine text itself in a manner that allows the rhetoric of the Johannine text to provide new information about the history of early Christianity. The first essential step was to break with the referential world of Jesus' lifetime itself and to enter the fictive drama of the text itself. Martyn paves the way for this with the observation that the statement 'You are a disciple of that one but we are disciples of Moses' (John 9.28) is 'scarcely conceivable in Jesus' lifetime, since it recognizes discipleship to Jesus not only as antithetical, but also as somehow comparable, to discipleship to Moses' (p. 19). This step breaks the interpreter's uncritical allegiance to a referential world of historical realism for Jesus' life and prepares the way for the interpreter to enter the narrative world of the text itself. The second essential step was to analyze the rhetoric of the narrative drama in such a manner that it evoked social, cultural and historical echoes about early Christianity. This was a matter of working with the process of the author's production of the text in an intertextual manner oriented toward social and cultural issues, rather than in a manner than focused on 'literary sources'.

The analysis begins with significant exploration of the inner texture of the healing of the blind man in John 9 (pp. 3-22). The careful attention to the stages of the drama and the nature of the discourse at each stage adopted an approach like a literary critic would take to a play or a novel. After analyzing the inner texture of the drama, Martyn investigated the intertexture of the statements about exclusion from the synagogue. Working with oral-scribal intertexture on the basis of the term aposynagogos, 'excluded from the synagogue', Martyn moved into social intertexture, namely the social phenomenon of exclusion from synagogues in early Christianity. The rhetoric of the Johannine text itself, namely the statement that 'The Jews had already agreed that...', convinces Martyn to move beyond oral-scribal and social intertexture to historical intertexture. He posits that leaders of the Jewish community in which the Fourth Gospel was written had recently introduced guidelines for identifying Jews who wanted to hold a dual allegiance to Moses and to Jesus as Messiah. In Martyn's terms:

Even against the will of some of the synagogue leaders, the Heretic Benediction is now employed in order formally and irretrievably to separate the church from the synagogue. (pp. 40-1)

At this point Martyn has circled back to the home base of a historical critic. But a new step in New Testament exegesis occurred when a fictive drama became the medium for a new datum in the history of early Christianity. Moreover, once Martyn had posited this new historical datum, he returned to the inner texture of the Fourth Gospel to show both the nature of Johannine discourse and the nature of the conversation in early Christianity. Only after careful analysis of John 5 and 7 in the context of the entire narrative (pp. 45-88) does he posit the theological terms that functioned in the conversation (pp. 91-142). Again, this is essentially an interdisciplinary mode of analysis, namely an exploration of fictive narrative to reconstruct a particular social and historical context.

Since Martyn's book does not use explicit rhetorical resources in its analysis, it is only embryonically socio-rhetorical. The approach, however, was a harbinger of the new paradigm in New Testament studies. The decisive move beyond a historical-critical paradigm occurred when Martyn used the discourse and drama of a narrative he considered to be fictive to inform the reader about the social, historical and theological terms of a situation in post-70 Christianity. In Martyn's analysis, the Johannine drama is a symbolic representation of the terms and dynamics of conflict in the Johannine community, much like a modern novel or short story may be a commentary on our own times. The manner in which Martyn correlates his insight into the narrative's dramatic fiction with the social and theological experience of exclusion from synagogues creates an essentially interdisciplinary mode of analysis. Written in 1968, the study is not formulated in interdisciplinary terms; rather, it operates in the domain of historical-critical interpretation and moves outside this domain only by the manner in which it enters seriously into the narrative drama and explores its meanings. The absence of explicitly literary or rhetorical resources also keeps the analysis of the argumentative texture of the pertinent Johannine passages closer to the mode of historical-critical exegesis. Nevertheless, the procedure itself and its conclusions point forward to an approach that works systematically out from the discourse in the text to wider and wider circles of meaning.


From: Vernon K. Robbins (1996) The Tapestry of Early Christian Discourse: Rhetoric, Society and Ideology, London: Routledge: 118-120.

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