Aug 11, 2013

What is 'Synkrisis' in the Gospel of John?

 Synkrisis is a rhetorical device or a literary structure designed to contrast and compare through juxtaposition. Sometimes two things are characterized in agonistic (or competitive) settings; hence, one of the two things being compared is shown to be superior. Here are three examples from John:

 Jesus and John the Baptizer
It seems the synkrisis between the Logos and John begins in John 1:6–8: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.” Now John is still shown to be a man on a mission from God. Yet it is clear his mission is in direct service to the mission of the Logos and therefore not primary. He is not the light but rather a light (a witness) for the light.
But John is OK with this, as we see in John 1:26–27, where he tells the crowd, “among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” This makes sense, after all, the Logos is God yet John is a man sent from God but not the Logos who was there in the beginning, which John points out in John 1:30, when he says this of the Logos: “After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.”

John had a beautiful blessing in that he not only knew who he was and his purpose within God’s plan but he also knew about Jesus’ mission. He demonstrates this in John 1:29: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

 The interesting thing about this is that the author of the gospel is not merely setting up an artificial construct in order to put down John but from John the Baptist’s own mouth come these self-effacing and Christ-honoring words. It is as if John the Baptist himself is setting up the comparison. I am not denying the literary artistry or even editing by John the Beloved but rather making the point that the synkrisis is an organic, not a forced one here.

 Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman
I think I see a modest synkrisis between Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman as well. I feel it is more subtle than the first but still present in John 3 and 4.

Some little touches are that Nicodemus comes to Jesus but Jesus goes to the Samaritan woman. There was a purpose in both but the difference is in one Jesus is more the initiator; ironically, it is the least expected one – with a Samaritan! With a woman! Nicodemus is different in that he is a Pharisee – the best of the best. It makes sense Jesus would talk to a Rabbi about theological matters. Not so much with this woman at the well – even she was surprised!

 Peter and John
The synkrisis between Peter and John runs off and on throughout this gospel. 

For example, John seems to be closer to the Master during his trial and presumably manages to not deny Jesus – unlike Peter. However, for the comparison to work there may need to be some similarities as well. For example, where were the other disciples? Not to be found at all. So Peter is close but John is closer. Peter has to defend his identity and affiliations against (true) allegations with slave girls and such, while John knows the High Priest Annas and has better access and less trouble. Of course, there is a great back and forth between them at the empty tomb. They both run to get there but Peter leaves first and John gets there first. Then they sort of take turns doing things, both seemingly according to their own personalities. This continues until the end of the book in John 21: from the boat to the beach and even their death predictions by Jesus. I wonder: is John still giving Peter a hard time in heaven?  

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