John's Maverick Gospel
John's: The Maverick Christian Group:
The Evidence of
Bruce J. Malina
Published in Biblical Theology Bulletin 24
(© 1996; Reprinted here by permission of the
The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate that John's was a maverick
Christian group, and that the nature and quality of this group can be seen in
the nature and quality of the language used in the gospel. By employing
insights from speech accommodation theory, antilanguage perspectives and the
sociolinguistics of intimacy, one can establish the general lines of the
Johannine association that might assist in a more adequate interpretation of
Beginners in New Testament Greek often start with the document called the
gospel of John (= John). To many, John's language is distinctive if only because
it is simpler than that of any other New Testament writing. John has a rather
straightforward vocabulary and syntax. But vocabulary and syntax are at the
wording level of language (Halliday 1978).
Language is a three-tiered affair both for the sociolinguist and for the
ordinary person. People often speak of changing wording that is too harsh or too
weak, but yet imparting the same meaning. Such a perspective intimates that
language consists of (a) soundings/spellings that (b) realize wordings that (c)
realize meanings. The soundings and spellings are quite concrete; they are in
fact the only dimension of language that impacts on the senses. The next level,
wording is about patterning soundings and spellings. Wording patterns range from
textual forms, through sentence forms, to word forms. The third level, meaning,
is the socially significant feature expressed and realized by means of wording
which is realized by means of sounding and spelling. Given the experience of
human beings as essentially social beings, those meanings come from and in fact
constitute the social system. This three-tiered model of language would have the
Bible reader ask: What social system or social meaning is being expressed in the
textual wordings realized in the spellings of biblical documents?
It seems easy to learn Greek wording by analyzing and memorizing the
patterns that emerge in John's gospel since they are so few in number. But
wording is not meaning. Rather wording is the way humans realize and express
meaning in language. The meanings themselves derive from some social system.
Often beginning Greek students learn to express meanings from their own social
system by means of the wording and spelling found in John's gospel. In this
sense, they learn to speak English in Greek. The question basic to a considerate
interpretation, of course, is how to recover the social system of the author so
as to understand that author's meanings conveyed in the wording and spelling of
On the other hand, at the wording level, the document called John is a text;
it is a meaningful configuration of language intended to communicate. We know it
is intended to communicate—and not just a bunch of doodling—because people in
our social system told us it is a gospel. This they learned from people before
them, ranging back, presumably, to the first collectors of such works in the
second century. People speak or produce documents such as gospels in order to
have some social effect. In fact language is essentially a form of social
interaction. People direct language at each other each other in order to mean in
some social context.
1.1. Considering a Text
Now who spoke John to whom for what purpose? Can social context be inferred
from the language that people use? Not a few German biblical scholars early in
this century did attempt to describe the social situation of early Christian
groups on the basis of the wording level of language, that is the level of the
patterns of writing and/or speaking, or "literary" forms found in the New
Testament. While these biblical scholars came up with some fine insights, most
often their assessment of the social situations available to early Christian
groups mirrored modern church situation and concerns (preaching, miracles,
teaching, and the like). They were not much focused on situations and concerns
of the first-century Mediterranean with its domestic and political religions.
There was little to correct the trend on the part of linguistics, since
during this period the study of language was innocent of social concerns.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the study of language focused on
explaining why it was that persons could produce an endless stream of novel
sentences, many of which had never been uttered by anyone else before, and yet
were readily understood by others. The answer at that time was that there were
a limited number of, albeit complex, grammatical rules from which an infinite
number of sentence can be transformed (Giles and
Wiemann 1987:351-52).This, of course, is the "language without social
context" approach, replicated in so much literary criticism. Without linguistics
to break the approach, the many literary critics (structuralists,
post-modernists, deconstructionists) claimed that the social system whose
meanings were realized in the wording level of language, in "texts" as they like
to designate these documents, is not knowable at all. All that one can know from
a "text" is what one puts into it (see Malina 1995b
forthcoming). And of course this position plays right into the concerns of those
practical hermaneuticists who have a whole close-of-the- twentieth-century
agenda to put into the "texts" so they can "discover" it, such as feminists,
liberationists, Christian zionists, and other contextualists.
1.2. Considering Communication
The fact is all ancient "texts," that is all ancient wordings, once did
realize meanings from a social system. Now linguists tell us that what persons
talk about is meaningful to their conversation partners not so much because
these partners do not know what a speaker (or writer) is going to say, but
because the partners do know. Any listener or reader has abundant evidence of
what some speaker or writer is going to say both from his/her knowledge of how
the language works and from practiced sensibility to what one in fact can say in
specific situations. Human beings tend to adapt their language to the language
of those with whom they interact. As a rule, members of various social groups
can predict the types of meanings that might be exchanged from the situations in
which speaking takes place. The other side of the coin looks to the speaker (or
writer). Considerate authors take their audience into account, just like
considerate conversation partners. Authors develop their scenarios with a view
to have effect on their readers and/or listeners. There can be little doubt that
the author of John, whoever he may have been, accommodated his language to his
audience. This means that he did not invent or create his own distinctive
language characteristics. John is not the "Maverick Gospel" (thus Kysar 1976; rev ed.
1993) so much as John's audience was the "Maverick Christian Group."
As I hope to show rather abundantly, when a speaker or author views his or
her conversation partners positively, language users inevitably make alterations
in language so as to draw closer to the listener(s) or reader(s) and to draw the
listener(s) or reader(s) closer to the language user as they communicate. Such
drawing closer to one's audience is social convergence. (On the other hand, with
partners viewed negatively, the language user will utilize a range of language
features to accentuate differences and thus keep the listener(s) or reader(s) at
a distance as they communicate. Such drawing away from the audience is social
The importance of giving attention to the way speakers and writers
accommodate by focusing on convergence (and divergence) in language is further
underscored by those who view this feature as essential to the activity of
communication. Consider Rogers' definition of communication in the last edition
of his work about the communication of innovation:
Communication is a process in which participants create and share
information with one another in order to reach a mutual understanding. This
definition implies that communication is a process of convergence (or
divergence) as two or more individuals exchange information in order to move
toward each other (or apart) in the meanings they ascribe to certain events
1983:5).Obviously, if communication is a process of linguistic convergence
(or divergence), the distinctive features of this process should be of interest
to those concerned with biblical interpretation.
In this essay, I consider the gospel of John as an instance of
communication. I hope to show how one might come to know a group such as John's
from the document that bears his name. Secondly, I wish to underscore some of
the characteristic features of this group, again on the basis of John's
communication. A theory that allows an investigator to envision an audience from
a piece of communication is called speech accommodation theory. And the path I
will follow to highlight the characteristic features of John's group consists of
two dimensions of sociolinguistics called antilanguage and the language of
2. Speech Accommodation Theory
Speech accommodation theory is based on the previously noted fact that human
beings tend to adapt their language to the language of those with whom they
interact. The theory deals with those cognitive, motivational, and affective
processes that underlie the way in which persons adapt to another's use of
language or accentuate linguistic differences.
SAT [Speech Accommodation Theory], developed by Giles and associates,
focuses on the social cognitive processes mediating individuals' perceptions
of the environment and their communicative behaviors. Its theoretical
framework developed out of a wish to demonstrate the value and potential of
social psychological concepts and processes for understanding the dynamics of
speech diversity in social settings. It purports to clarify the motivations
underlying, as well as the constraints operating upon, speech shifts during
social interactions and the social consequences of these. Specifically it
originated in order to elucidate the cognitive and affective processes
underlying speech convergence and divergence, although other speech strategies
(for example, speech complementarity and speech competition) have come into
its theoretical purview more recently (Giles, et al.
The central notion of the Speech accommodation theory framework is that as
they speak or as they write, those who communicate are motivated to adjust or to
accommodate their linguistic styles to their audience as a strategy for gaining
various social goals. Given the fact that the author of John is a first-century
Mediterranean, for example, we can be sure he communicated with his group to
evoke their social approval as well as to maintain their positive assessment of
his social identity. Furthermore, he certainly sought to be effective in his
communicational endeavor with the group to which he was so attached. After all
"love" is group attachment. It was John's perception of his audience's language
style that determined his evaluation of what his own appropriate style should be
for the telling of his story. People constantly judge and assess their
interlocutors or audience. They wish to be accepted and understood by their
audience, and they seek to come away from the interaction with a positive self-
assessment. In Mediterranean terms, to even write a document like the gospel of
John is nothing less than to challenge the honor of one's fellows (and enemies
as well) (see Malina 1993:
28-60). Simply as an author (that is, apart from concerns for being considerate
of the audience), the author of John sought to allay the challenge quality of
his presentation and transformed it into a group product to be shared rather
than a gift requiring reciprocity. I think anyone who understands Mediterranean
society will admit this (unless they postulate that John was insane). He carried
off this transformation by techniques of accommodation, notably linguistic
convergence with a view to audience acceptance—thus maintaining his own sense of
honor. He equally underscored features of interpersonal intimacy—thus totally
defusing any challenge quality in the work.
Adaptation to another's use of language is called linguistic convergence
(while the accentuation of differences is called linguistic divergence). People
who intend to communicate converge to where they believe their partners are
linguistically located for both intellectual reasons (to make sense and have
effect) and affective reasons (to demonstrate solidarity, loyalty, commitment).
Language convergence is often cognitively mediated by stereotypes of one's
language partners. For in their desire to be considerate, speakers and writers
have to work from socially categorized images of how others will use language
(children, retarded, elderly, blind, foreigners). People learn how to converge
with their interlocutors in the process of enculturation.
In John's case, the author adequately revealed who he thought his audience
was and what sort of language they would understand. For it surely makes sense
for us to believe John's original audience could follow the author in his
assessment of the personages and interactions depicted in the gospel's various
stories. And we can be sure this audience also shared his stereotypes of the
gospel's range of characters and their reaction to what Jesus said and did. The
gospel offers a fine sampling of various persons converging and diverging with
Jesus' statements. However, as I will later demonstrate, it was not so much by
general enculturation in the prevailing social system that John's audience could
follow him. Rather it was by resocialization in the Johannine group that they
acquired the ability needed to follow John's gospel. Convergence, thus, reflects
an author's desire for social integration or identification with the group. The
gospel of John provided members of the Johannine group with a verbal repertoire
and verbal flexibility to modify and maintain their own language patterns so
that they might better fit into the group.
Trudgill suggests that lexical shifts probably precede grammatical and
phonological convergence and that the latter also may be inhibited by
difficulties in restructuring as well as by a desire to avoid loss of contrast
and strongly stereotyped features. Thus different speakers may adopt different
convergent strategies as well as having different purposes for so doing (Giles, et al.
1987:21).John's vocabulary would mirror the lexical selections in vogue
among his associates. The distinctiveness of this vocabulary would indicate that
other Christian associations did not converge in this regard. As a matter of
fact, given what the author of 1 John writes, it would seem that that document
emerged as a sort of linguistic broker. 1 John was written to compensate for the
apparent lack of understanding of what John was about and to promote solidarity
and empathy. 1 John was written to bridge the communicational gaps between that
document's audience and John's gospel, so as not to detract from optimal
outcomes sought by the gospel.
Convergence has been defined as a linguistic strategy whereby individuals
adapt to each other's language by means of a wide range of linguistic
features, including language rates, pauses and utterance length,
pronunciations and so on. Divergence refers to the way in which speakers
accentuate vocal differences between themselves and others. Both of these
linguistic shifts may be either upward or downward, where the former refers to
a shift in a societally valued direction and the later refers to modifications
toward more stigmatized forms (Giles, et al.
1987:14).Considerate speakers and authors are masters of language
accommodation. They know how to converge with their audience (see Malina 1991).
Given the preponderant interpersonal focus of John, the author of this document
was undoubtedly a considerate author, that is one who was person-centered,
receiver-focused, rhetorically sensitive. In the hands (or mouth) of a
considerate author, language convergence is an active communicative strategy.
Convergence facilitates interaction-maintenance and goals. Now, whether
consciously or automatically and unawares, John applied a convergence script (or
schema or scenario) to move toward the language he shared with his fellow group
2.2. Linguistic Divergence
Language divergence is a symbolic tactic for maintaining intergroup
distinctiveness. While language convergence erases intergroup boundaries,
divergence underscores intergroup markers and division. Simply put, whoever did
not speak "Johannine" was not a member of John's group. If John's language and
style were so distinctive, that is because John's group was quite distinctive,
hence set apart and divided from all other contemporary groups, Christian,
Israelite and Hellenistic. Thus language divergence and convergence are "a more
subtle measure in studies of in-group bias" (Messick and Mackie
1989). People use language styles as a symbolic tactic for maintaining identity,
ideological focus, cultural pride and distinctiveness.
This tactic, so evident in John once one reads the Synoptics, marks a
refusal to converge. Divergence is dis-accommodation. Dis-accommodation
accentuates the linguistic and social differences between ingroup and outgroup.
Such accentuation maintains social integrity, distance and identity.
It is likely that there is a hierarchy of strategies for psycholinguistic
distinctiveness varying in the degree of social dissociation that they
indicate. The range runs from a few pronunciations and content
differentiations through forms of accent and dialect divergences to verbal
abuse and naming, abrasive humor, and the maintenance or switch to another
language in response to an outgroup speaker (Giles, et al.
1987:30).Everything depends on the repertoire of wording potential
(language patterns, syntax, vocabulary) available to the speaker/writer and
Divergence not only expresses attitudes, but also puts order and meaning
into the interaction and provides a mutually understood basis for communication.
Content and discourse differentiation in John and other forms of divergence
serve to indicate that the speaker is not a member of the larger community or of
other Christian groups, much less a member in good standing of "this world" or
of "the Judeans." This is a socially self-handicapping tactic. For when the
denizens of this world or of Judea or even of other Christian groups assessed
John's linguistic divergence as purposeful, their accusations of dissidence and
deviance could not be far behind. Divergence acts as a form of self-disclosure
to indicate that certain norms and spheres of knowledge and behavior are not
shared with the outgroup, and that ingroup interactions are at a
2.3. The Foundations of Speech
Giles and his associates believe that a study of accommodation phenomena is
worthwhile if only because such phenomena pervade human interaction. Speech
accommodation is really communication accommodation (Giles, et al.
1987: 41). And communication accommodation is rooted in the following social
psychological principles: similarity of attraction, causal attribution and
intergroup processes. Consider each of these principles in turn.
2.3.1. Similarity of Attraction
As one person becomes more similar to another, the greater the likelihood
that the second will like the first. Interpersonal convergence through language
is a strategy to this end. The principle of the similarity of attraction
evidences the fact that the author of John set forth the story of Jesus as he
did because the people for whom he wrote shared similar modes of perception,
evaluation and articulation. In sum, they "believed" as he did, hence he writes
that they "may continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God"
People converge in language because of their desire for social integration
or social identification with others. The greater the speaker's or writer's need
to gain another's approval or attraction, the greater the degree of convergence
there will be, up to a certain optimal point. Interactants of this sort converge
both to where they believe others are or even where they expect them to be as
they carefully lead them along. Increasing similarity in communication increases
a person's attractiveness, predictability, intelligibility, and interpersonal
involvements (empiric proof cited by Giles, et al.
1987: 17). Apart from the general feature that people are essentially social
beings, people seek social approval for the following reasons: they will
probably interact in the future; they wish to have social effect on each other;
they can empathize; they previously benefitted from convergence; interaction
fills their individual need for approval. Presumably all of these features
applied to the author of John as member of the group that shared John's gospel.
People tend to converge in the direction of those wielding symbols of social
effectiveness. In other words, speakers converge up to those perceived to wield
power, wealth, influence or loyalty and solidarity. In our society, for example,
salesmen converge in the direction of their customers, parish members to clergy,
soldiers to their officers and the like (Giles, et al.
1987: 17, 22-23). Such convergence in the direction of others may mark
divergence from group of origin. Thus a Christian coming from a Pauline or
Petrine group would converge in speech usage in the direction of the Johannine
one. Or such convergence in speech may simply reflect a person's actual social
location as a member of the John's group.
A second reason for communication accommodation is rooted in the fact that
people attempt to understand and evaluate the behavior of others in terms of the
motives and intentions they attribute as being the cause of the behavior. People
behave as they do because they are motivated to behave that way. When people
observe behavior of significance to them, they inevitably attribute motives to
explain the behavior. A motive is a person's capacity to find satisfaction in a
given state of affairs and a disposition to seek that satisfaction. Motives may
be self-oriented or other-oriented, group-oriented or societally-oriented (Zander 1971; 1985).
In such causal attribution, three factors are involved: the ability of the other
person, the effort expended by the other person and the external pressures
impelling the person to act in a particular way.
In his assessment of his audience's motives, John would take into account
the ability and effort of his audience members as well as the social pressures
that propel their actions. They joined the Johannine group to find satisfaction;
they were presumably well-disposed to seek satisfaction in that group (on John's
group as individualistic, see Malina 1986a:
55-61 and passim). Causal attribution would focus our attention on how and in
what the Johannine group sought and found satisfaction. Presumably this
satisfaction consisted in their effectively becoming "children of God" (John
1:12), in experiencing the Spirit (John 19:30) that enabled them to understand
the real meaning of what Jesus said and did (John 7:39; 14:26: 16:12-13), and in
performing those even greater works (John 14:12) that Jesus promised to those
who believe in him as God's revelatory agent. In sum, members of John's
community saw, that is experienced, God (14:9).
On the other hand, throughout the story we have the opportunity to observe
how John attributes motives to Jesus' opponents. The global opposition of "this
world" and "the Judeans," and the specific opposition of single groups such as
the Pharisees and the crowds facilitate John's divergence strategies. John's
description of persons reacting to Jesus most often present them as
representatives of different social groups even though they have individual
names. Thus encounters with Jesus fall along an interindividual—intergroup
continuum. At the interindividual end, interpersonal relationships and
individual characteristics are highlighted in the encounter, often a
conversation. But as the encounter develops beyond the conversation stage, Jesus
addresses the intergroup dimension. Then members of the outgroup are treated as
undifferentiated items in a unified social category ("this world," "the
Judeans"). But ingroup members take on the characteristics of their own group
("you") in a self-stereotyping way (after Tajfel and Turner, 1979, cited by Giles, et al.
1987: 29). These features with their underlying causal attributions are quite
apparent in the many conversations in John, where dialogue turns into monologue
(John 3:1–4:42; 5:10ff; 6:22ff; 9:13–10:42; 11:1-44; 11:45–12:36a).
2.3.3. Institutional Norms for Speech Accommodation
Obviously the quality and content of linguistic congruence and divergence
depend to a large extent upon the institution in which communication takes
place. In the first century Mediterranean, the overarching institutions were
kinship and politics. Religion and economics were embedded in these with the
following results as regards institutional arrangements. There was kinship with
its domestic religion and domestic economics, and politics with its political
religion and political economics (Malina 1986b;
1994). What persons talk about is meaningful to their conversation partners
because these partners know what a speaker or writer is going to say. John is
writing for a fictive kin group consisting of fellow "disciples," (so unlike
other New Testament groups which consist of fictive "brothers" and presumably
"sisters"). First century Mediterranean teachers and their disciples were
devoted to a way of living, a style of experiencing life that embrace God and
fellow humans (see Culpepper 1975).
Thus any listener aware of how a teacher and his disciples behaved in society
would have abundant evidence of what John was going to say both from knowledge
of how the language works in disciple-based fictive kin-groups, and from
practiced sensibility to what one in fact can say in generic and specific
situations of this sort. Johannine disciples took on their roles and developed
social identities in the group in terms of their understanding of the generic
institution that disciple-based fictive kinship was. This social identity was
formed in terms of a central process that includes: social categorization
(disciple of the teacher, Jesus), identification (living out discipleship),
social comparison (between ingroup and outgroup discipleship), psychological
distinctiveness (experiences as children of God). The sequence of stages in this
process of social identity formation, then, are categorization, identification,
comparison and distinctiveness. This sequence replicates the stages entailed in
the foundation of a group (aware, share, compare, declare) as follows. In group
formation, some individual becomes aware of a problem requiring a group for its
solution, then shares this awareness with others; others then compare the
solution with those available in the society and finally accept (or reject) it
and let others know about it as well (see Malina 1995b
With a new social identity, as members of a new and significant group, a
person's language usage changes accordingly.
When one of an individual's social group memberships is construed as
situationally salient, he or she will attempt to differentiate from relevant
outgroup individuals on dimensions that are valued as core aspects of their
group identity. Should language be a salient dimension of that group
membership, as it so often is for ethnic groups, then differentiation by means
of language or nonverbal divergence will ensue (on one or more of the
following dimensions: language, dialect, slang, phonology, discourse
structures, isolated words and phrases, posture, and so on) in order to
achieve a positive psycholinguistic distinctiveness (Giles, et al.
1987:29, citing Giles, Bourhis and Taylor, 1977).Often the valued feature
of a language interaction is the event at which language takes place along with
the institutional expectations the event signals. Consider, for example,
response to a question posed by a hostile questioner (John 7:14-24),
conversation struck up with some unknown person (John 5:2-9), riposte to a
challenge to one's honor (John 8:48-59), or a challenge directed to an unknown
opponent (John 6:47-51). Language behavior at such events follows
sociolinguistic norms for dealing with outgroup persons. Convergence here means
adherence to strong social norms for dealing with outsiders, not adherence to
the language-style of the other as though they were fellow ingroup members.
The fact is that in language interactions, people are constrained by social
norms. The distinctiveness of John on the wording level alone clearly indicates
how constrained he was by his group's norms and his unconcern with the social
norms prevailing in the outgroup. Again, the language of John is that of the
Johannine group, the "maverick Christian association." Since the right choice of
language led to rewards such as increased perceived attractiveness, gains in
listener's approval, cooperativeness, compliance, we can assume that John's
right choices yielded social effectiveness. On the other hand, the costs
involved in his choice involved outgroup evaluations of a negative sort:
decrease in perceived competence, expended effort, the possible loss of personal
or social identity, and sanctions accruing from antinormative or nonnormative
communication. A number of these negative outcomes are alluded to in the story,
as forecast by Jesus (John 15:20; 16:2).
Dimensions of Accommodation: Who Is Involved
"Language can reflect intraindividual, interindividual, intergroup and
institutional characteristics" (Giles and Wiemann
1987: 354). Given the fact that John is a document whose author and audience are
no longer available for direct scrutiny and given the fact that first-century
Mediterraneans were anti- introspective, collectivistic personalities (see Malina 1994a), I
would not expect to find any certain intraindividual linguistic features. The
psycholinguistic data are simply absent, and perhaps not very useful for
exegetical purposes anyway. However the document does reveal a few interpersonal
features and a host of intergroup and institutional characteristics sufficient
for an analysis at a social level.
Interindividual situations are relational, depicting two persons, a couple
or a dyadic comparison. Here interaction is fully determined by interpersonal
relationships and individual stereotypical characteristics, and not at all
affected by various social groups to which interactants belong. From a cognitive
perspective, initial encounters between people involve the reduction of
uncertainty. Mutual interrogation followed by self-disclosures allows
participants to not only make their partner more predictable but engenders more
certainty about responding "appropriately" themselves (cf. the initial
encounters in John: e.g., Nathanael 1:43-51; Nicodemus 3:1-15; the Samaritan
woman 4:7-42). Interpersonal encounters and apparent role relationships
inevitably have an affective dimension. Address terms point to asymmetrical
status and power roles. The author's description of aspects of physical features
in such encounters (e.g., nonverbal distancing patterns, differences in
interpersonal space, backward or forward lean, differences in gazing patterns)
equally take on pragmatic significance and point up status and/or solidarity
differences. Many of these descriptive features are distinctive of John (see
below 4.6 and 4.7).
2.4.2. Intergroup Dimensions
Group situations depicting outsiders are intergroup interactions. Here
interactions are fully determined by interactant's memberships in various social
groups and are not at all affected by interindividual personal relationships.
The more persons see the interaction as intergroup, the more behavioral
uniformity do persons display toward outgroup members, and the more they will
treat them in an undifferentiated manner rather than as individuals. When
individuals identify with a social group, they desire to derive satisfaction
from their membership in it. The realization of the affect associated with
ingroup identity comes through; this results in the expression of intergroup
comparisons between the position of one's own group and that of other groups on
such valued dimensions as power, loyalty and solidarity, influence and
When a member of a group defines an encounter subjectively as an intergroup
phenomenon, he or she will wish to assume a positive social identity, by
differentiation from those who are outgroup members (note the conversation in
which Peter denies Jesus, John 18:25-26; see Giles and Wiemann
1987: 358). People who wish to join a new group will begin to speak like members
of that group, dropping the ways of speaking typical of their former group
affiliations (note the shifts in the Samaritan woman's language as the
interaction proceeds, John 4:7-26).
Indeed it is no accident that cross-culturally what is 'standard,'
'correct,' and 'cultivated' language behavior is that of the aristocracy, the
upper or ruling classes and their institutions; that is, the language of the
most powerful—politically and economically (Giles and
Wiemann 1987:361).Thus second language learning is dramatically
unidirectional! It is not the socially higher who learn to speak as the lower
status people, but always the other way around. Hence it was Israelites and
other Semites who learned Greek. Romans and other Hellenists did not learn
Hebrew and Aramaic. Significantly, in spite of their roots in first-century
Israelite society, all Christian documents are written in Greek, the language of
Social identity, mentioned previously, is concerned with behavior at the
intergroup level of in terms of highly general, typical features. The more
individuals define situations in intergroup terms and desire to maintain or
achieve a positive ingroup identity, the more likely will they diverge in
language from the other group. In other words, the more a member of the
Johannine group defined himself or herself as part of that group and sought to
achieve or maintain a positive ingroup identity, the more that member would
converge with the discourse mode typical of John. Of course that "disciple"
would likewise diverge from the discourse mode typical of Matthew, Mark, Luke
For John and his group, Jesus was revealer of God, Son of God who enabled
those in the association themselves to experience God as children (John 1:12).
Jesus was not concerned with any theocracy for Israel, there is no proclamation
of God's kingdom in that gospel. Rather, Jesus was concerned with giving the
Spirit to all who would believe in God's presence in him (John 19:30; see Neyrey 1988:
182-215). Redemption and salvation are of little concern. The mode of discourse
that articulated such positions would situate the associates of John's group on
some intergroup status hierarchy. As an association clearly rejected by the
Judeans, among other groups, and equally avoided by other Christian associations
(see 3 John), John's group seems to claim preeminence since it allows for no
compromise whatsoever. The way it is treated replicates the way in which its
Lord was treated. John's group claims superiority over other Christian groups,
expecting them to join the John group ("that they may be one!" John
2.5. Intermediate Summary
The fact that authors generally tend to accommodate to their audience allows
us to believe that the author of John tended to converge with his group. Members
of that group must have formed a maverick Christian association if John's gospel
made sense to them. Speech accommodation means John's association shared many of
his viewpoints, attitudes and perspectives, if not everything that he sets
forth. Given first-century Mediterranean cultural constraints, from a document
like John we learn nothing of the author, more about the document, but much more
about the intended receiver.
Documents from antiquity are receiver focused in more ways than one. To read
them from the viewpoint of modern authorship with its focus on the individualism
of the subject and the paraphernalia of the Romantic period is historically
inaccurate. John's gospel reveals to us John's community, and the reason for
this is the author's desire to communicate. Of course the same may be said of
the rest of the New Testament documents. They reveal precious little of their
authors, including Paul, regardless of what so many people have said and
written. And they necessarily, if not exclusively, revealed information about
the groups to which they were addressed. Those who argue for "community
authorship" (e.g. Culpepper 1975) are
closer to the truth than those who would single out the personality of the
To interpret documents requires the interpreter to trace back the meanings
realized through texts to a culturally and historically appropriate social
system. The question I wish to consider here is similar to that of traditional
form critics: what sort of social system does John's wording realize? (see my
previous treatment, Malina 1985).
More narrowly, what sort of situation, what set of concerns, might adequately
explain the document called the gospel of John? Along with literary critics,
past and present, I too will begin with the wording level of language, the
language of text, sentence, and word, of style, syntax, and lexicography.
Consider some of the features of this document at the wording
3.1. Introduction: John's Wording Level
Perhaps the simplest way to approach John is to note its author's
distinctive development of and penchant for new words in place of old ones. This
trait bespeaks language relexicalized, but only partially. Its implicit
principle seems to be: same grammar but different vocabulary, though only in
certain areas. And these areas are those of central concern to the focal
interests and activities of John's group. In John, this concern is articulated
as follows: "that you may continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son
of God, and that believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:31). In other
words, the author of John is concerned with spelling out the meaning of Jesus of
Nazareth as Messiah and in developing emotional anchorage "in Jesus" for his
collectivity. It is to this end that the author develops his very different
3.1.1. Too Many Words:
Furthermore, John does not simply relexicalize in his area of concern, but
he overlexicalizes by employing a rather large range of lexical items to cover
the same area. First of all, note his contrasts between spirit, the above, life,
light, not of the/this world, freedom, truth, love, and their opposites: flesh,
the below, death, darkness, the/this world, slavery, lie, hate. These words are
variants used to describe contrasting spheres of existence, opposing modes of
living and being. Similarly, and with extremely little appreciable difference in
meaning, John speaks of "believing into Jesus," or "following" him, of "abiding
in" him or "loving" him, of "keeping his word," of "receiving" him, or "having"
him, or "seeing" him.
3.1.2. Interpersonal Focus: Not Many
John likewise evidences a distinctive emphasis in the range of meanings
communicated in the work. Languages can be said to entail three linguistic modes
of meaning: the ideational, the interpersonal, and the textual. The ideational
refers to what is being said or described; the interpersonal looks to the
personal qualities of the communicating partners; and the textual pertains to
the qualities of any piece of language to form text (such as cohesion). Again,
what one says is ideational, with whom one speaks is interpersonal and how one
speaks is textual (see Halliday 1978:
8-36; the model on 69 and its explanation on 125-26). We single out these
components here because John typically deemphasizes the ideational (what he has
to say) and focuses solely upon the interpersonal (with whom the conversation
occurs) and textual (how one speaks). Thus Jesus can be "Revealer," with little
or nothing to reveal (a solution to the confusion of Bultmann 1971:
passim). For example, a comparison of the text of John (the whole gospel as
story) with the texts of the Synoptics will readily indicate that John downplays
the ideational feature of language. For in John there is no progressive
description of who Jesus is, no progressively mounting opposition from enemies,
no progressive presentation of Jesus' ministry and teaching, so special "gospel"
of Jesus, no interest in the "kingdom of Heaven" or on the revitalization of
Israel. All John really has to say is said in the prologue: We can become
"children of God" because "God's Utterance has been enfleshed and has taken up
residence in our midst" (John 1:12, 14). The vignettes in the gospel are
variations on this theme.
On the other hand, John certainly highlights the interpersonal and textual
functions of language. The linguistic dimensions of how Jesus speaks (textual
component) and with whom he speaks (interpersonal component), come through in a
way not found in the Synoptic narratives. Halliday notes that it is these two
dimensions (interpersonal and textual) that account for overlexicalization. For
example, overlexicalization based on the textual function of language (how Jesus
speaks, how others speak to Jesus) is revealed in forms of verbal display such
as punning and word play. This feature is quite apparent in John's pattern of
ambiguity, misunderstanding and clarification (John 2:19ff; 3:3ff; 4:10ff;
4:32ff; 6:33ff; 8:31ff; 8:38ff; 11:11ff; 11:23ff; 13:8ff; 14:4ff; 14:7ff;
14:21ff; 16:16ff. All of these text-segments reveal verbal display or word plays
relative to the following: the destruction of the temple, being born again,
water, food, bread, freedom, father, sleep, resurrection, washing, way, seeing,
manifestation, a little while—respectively). This feature is likewise manifested
in John's penchant for irony (John 2:9-10; 4:12; 7:27; 7:42; 7:52; 11:16; 11:36;
12:19; 13:37; 18:31; 18:38; 19:5; 19:14; 19:19ff.).
As for the interpersonal component, overlexicalization deriving from this
function of language (who is involved, of whom and to whom Jesus speaks) is
indicated by the set of words that have the same denotation, but have quite a
different connotation based on the attitude and commitment they entail in an
interpersonal context. This includes, for example, all the "I am . . . "
statements previously referred to. The words "bread" (John 6:35), "light"
(8:12), "door" (10:9), "life" (11:25-26), "way" (14:6), "vine" (15:5) have the
same denotation in the contexts in which they are employed; they refer to
various, real world objects. However when identified with Jesus in an "I am . .
. " proposition, each takes on some interpersonal dimension. The synonyms for
the activities of discipleship ("to believe, come, abide, follow, love, keep
words, receive, have, see") and those for the two contrasting realms ("the
above, spirit," etc., and "the below, flesh," etc. listed previously) point in
the same direction, i.e. to the interpersonal component of language.
This orientation toward the interpersonal and textual modes of the
linguistic system accounts for the way social values are foregrounded,
highlighted, and underscored in antilanguage. This sort of emphasis on social
values indicates that John and his group seek the implementation of new values
in place of old ones, not new structures. The Synoptics and Paul, on the other
hand, emphasize new structures in place of old ones. The new structures are
fictive kin-groups called "church" or "the body of Christ" or those "in Christ"
and the like. Emphasis on new structures underscores and features the ideational
mode of the linguistic system. What is in fact happening and what should in fact
be happening are emphasized, while who is involved and what is said are of
3.2 Defining Antilanguage
The consistent relexicalization and overlexicalization along with a focus on
the interpersonal and modal aspect of language point to what Halliday has
labelled as "antilanguage" (Halliday 1978:
164-82). "Antilanguage" is the language of an "antisociety," that is "a society
that is set up within another society as a conscious alternative to it. It is a
mode of resistance, resistance which may take the form either of passive
symbiosis or of active hostility and even destruction" (Ibid. 171). The
instances of antilanguage that Halliday studied include the language of
individuals put into prison as well as into reform schools in Poland, of members
of the underworld in India, of vagabonds in Elizabethan England. All these
individuals formed groups that were in fact anti- societies set up within a
larger, broader society. And in this setting, their language came to express
their social experience. Antilanguage and antisociety go hand in hand. Or as
Giblett notes: "There can be no society without language, and no antisociety
without an antilanguage" (Giblett
It is curious to note that antisocieties, as a rule, have a negative
relation to prevailing custom or law.
They are either on the margins of the law, or they have broken the law.
They are not outside society, but an outside hollowed within society. They are
both objects of the power of the law and subjects of their own
counter-language which resists and undermines the power of the law (Giblett
1991:2).Just as society is not opposed to antisociety, so too language is
not opposed to antilanguage. As a matter of fact, users of normal language more
or less understand antilanguage but miss the full meaning realized by the latter
since normal language users do not inhabit the antisociety nor share its social
system. And it is antisociety that is opposed to society, antilanguage to
language. Halliday notes that "antilanguage arises when the alternative reality
is a counter-reality, set up in opposition to some established norm" (Halliday 1978:
What this means is that the individuals comprising John's group were not
rejected by their opponents because of anything in John's gospel. The gospel
does not present the beliefs and attitudes of group members that led to their
expulsion by others. Rather John's gospel reflects the alternate reality John's
group set up in opposition to its opponents, notably "this world" and "the
Judeans." In the eyes of these opponents, John's group was anomalous. Because of
the way it experienced God (as God's children did, John 1:12, contrary to "this
world") and because of its believe in Jesus as distinctive Messiah (contrary to
"the Judeans"), it stood either on the margins of community standards or broke
those standards. On the margins, John's group was not illegal, but in a space
which the custom or law did not (or could not) cover because the group was not
really subject to the law. Or as norm breakers, the group subsisted in an
outside location hollowed within society. In that location, it was the object of
the power of community norms, but its members acted as subjects of their own
antilanguage which resisted and undermined the power of those community norms.
Like all antilanguage, John's too is "consciously used for strategic purposes,
defensively to maintain a particular social reality or offensively for
resistance and protest" (Halliday 1978:
178-79). In other words, an antilanguage is a language deriving from and
generated by an antisocietal group. And an antisocietal group is an association
that is set up within a larger society as a conscious alternative to it.
The reasons why persons come up with conscious alternatives to the society
in which they are in some way embedded are varied and many. Sociolinguists can
suggest a range of reasons. Persons might be labelled as deviant and treated
with active hostility by members of society at large. Or a given category of
persons might experience total lack of social concern, resulting in their living
in the greater society in a state of passive social symbiosis. Or persons might
be exiled or rejected due to negative outcomes of an uprising or revolt, and
will have to fend for themselves. Finally, persons might be confined to
concentration camps, maximum security prisons, restricted wards in mental
hospitals, and the like.
All such persons are variously labelled as deviants: whether sinners,
unbelievers, apostates, dissidents, subversives, prisoners, inmates or patients.
As deviants, they often undergo daily and progressive public disconfirmation of
their ability to act as adult persons. Their movements and choices are
restricted. In extreme cases, officials of the broader society publicly evaluate
them in terms of a moral system that socially denies that they are capable of
being genuine agents on their own behalf. To use contemporary terms, they are
declared to be non-persons. Their movements and utterances are denied the status
of significant human actions. Since what they say and do is defined as mere
behavior, going through meaningless motions, they must be, so it is pronounced,
without capacities to act in human fashion. Antilanguage and its generating
alternate society derive from individuals who have experienced socially
sanctioned depersonalization (see Harris
In John's case, the document does point to an audience composed of
individuals that emerged from and stands opposed to society and its competing
groups. Concretely, the notable groups which John's collectivity opposes include
Hellenistic society at large, that is, "the (this) world" (79 times in John; 9
times in Matt and 3 each in Mark and Luke), and Judean society, "the Judeans"
(71 times in John; 5 times in Matt and Luke; 7 times in Mark). These groups
adamantly refuse to believe in Jesus as Messiah. Brown (1979:
168-69) discerns four more groups in the document: the adherents of John the
Baptist who do not as yet believe in Jesus, and three groups which claim to
believe in Jesus: crypto-Christians, Christians from the house of Israel and
Christians of the apostolic churches. This last group is perhaps "the sheep not
of this fold" (John 10:16) with which John's group has some relationship through
the "shepherd." John's antilanguage is a form of resistance to this range of
competing groups and develops for positive and negative reasons, to be
Antilanguage is not simply a specialized variety of language such as a
technical variety of ordinary language used in a special way or in particular,
technical contexts (e.g., technical jargons, argots and the like). Rather, an
antilanguage arises among persons in groups espousing and held by alternative
perceptions of reality, reality as experienced and set up in opposition to some
established mode of conception and perception. Consequently, an antilanguage is
nobody's "mother tongue," nor is it a predictable "mother tongue" derivative.
Rather antilanguage exists solely in a social context of resocialization. Like
any other language, it is a means of realizing the social (sub-)system and
cultural script of the group in question, a means of expressing perceptions of
the reality mediated by that script by actively creating and maintaining that
reality by means of language. But unlike ordinary language, antilanguage creates
and expresses a reality that is inherently an alternative reality, one that is
constructed precisely in order to function as an alternative to society at
large. In the antilanguage of John, we find the expression of an alternative to
the society of first century Mediterranean Hellenism in general, and of the
Judean version of Israelite ideology in particular. John's group is an
alternative to "this world," and to "the Judeans." Thus what is significant in
antilanguage is not its distance from the language of Hellenistic Judea, but the
tension between the two. Both the Hellenistic "Judeans" at large and the
alternative group share the same overarching system of meaning, just as both are
part and parcel of the same overarching social system, "this world." Yet they
stand in opposition to and in tension with each other. The reason for
underscoring this point is that to appreciate the new values and perceptions
generated by an antisocietal collectivity, one must understand the larger
society to which it stands opposed.
3.3. The Functions of
What uses do antilanguages serve? Halliday observes that antilanguages are
generally replications of social forms based on highly distinctive values that
are clearly set apart from those of the society from which antisocietal members
derive. Like language itself, antilanguage is the bearer of social reality, but
of an alternative social reality that runs counter to the social reality of
society at large. Thus antilanguage serves to maintain inner solidarity (=
"love") under pressure. The pressure, of course, stems from the surrounding
broader society from which group members originally came and in which they are
to a large extent still embedded. Furthermore, for individuals to maintain
solidarity with their fellow antisocietal members and not fall back into the
margins of the groups from which they left or were ejected, some sort of
alternative ideology along with emotional anchorage in the new collectivity is
necessary. This necessity is best served by demonstrations of mutual care and
concern on the part of those in the antisocietal group so as to establish strong
affective identification on the part of newcomers into the group as well as
those on its fringes ready to swing out. Of course, this describes the process
of resocialization (see Mol 1976:50-54;
142-201). Just as language is crucial for the social interpretation of reality
and for the socialization of new members into that reality, so too antilanguage
is crucial for the social reinterpretation of reality and for the
resocialization of newcomers into that reality. John is an instance of such
antilanguage in the Christian tradition.
From the viewpoint of linguistics, the process of resocialization and
solidarity maintenance makes special demands on the antilanguage. In particular,
the antilanguage in question must facilitate the process of establishing
strongly affective ties with both the reputational legitimate authority who is
the central influence in the collectivity ("the disciple whom Jesus loved") as
well as with significant others in the group (the "disciples"). And this process
has to be geared to the individual group member, just as the original
socialization process was. Now the linguistic genre most appropriate to this end
is conversation and its implicit modes of reciprocity. In John again, there is
ample evidence of distinctive conversations with Jesus that serve a
resocialization function (John 3:1–4:42; 5:10ff; 6:22ff; 9:13–10:42; 11:1-44;
11:45–12:36a; 13–17). How these conversations unfold is common knowledge. Jesus
begins to converse with some individual person, moves on to address that person
in monologue fashion, and the monologue turns into an address to the
reader/hearer. Throughout these text-segments, there is heavy foregrounding of
interpersonal meanings directed to individuals. It seems that these
conversations are the feature of John that hold constant and perennial appeal
for individualistically oriented persons. Jesus speaks to them in an individual
way, not as group members as is the case in the rest of the Synoptics (or for
the addressees of the remaining New Testament writings). It must be emphasized
that it is John's characteristic antilanguage that accounts for this feature of
the gospel. (In this regard, the use of the pronoun "you" singular in Greek is
distinctive: 60 times in John, 10 times in Mark, 18 in Matt and 26 times in
Luke; similarly the pronoun "you" plural in Greek: 68 times in John, 11 in Mark,
30 in Matt, and 28 times in Luke—such emphatic use of the pronoun in Greek
simply underscores the interpersonal dimension).
The alternative reality generated by groups such as John's has certain
implications. First of all, it implies an emphasis on new core values and an
attempt to create standards and situations to implement those values. It
likewise implies a preoccupation with social boundaries, with social definition
and defense of identity by means of repeated and varied articulation of the new
reality now so clearly perceived. Of course both of these points are realized in
John's strong contrast between the above, spirit, etc. and the below, flesh,
etc. and the forms of experience proper to each. Further the counter-reality in
question implies a special conception of information and knowledge—a feature
more than amply highlighted in John (the word "to know" occurs more than 150
times). Finally such counter-reality implies that social meanings will be seen
as oppositions; values are defined in terms of what they are not. Again, in John
it is quite clear that Jesus' signs are simply not about what is going on, i.e.
healing or rescue, but about something more and something other than one can
ostensibly witness. Perhaps the clearest articulation of this process is to be
found in the narrative of the man born blind (John 9:1-41).
Further, as Halliday has observed, the overlexicalization of antilanguages
is a form of variant in linguistics. In general, a variant is an alternative
realization of a linguistic element on the next, or some higher level of
abstraction in the linguistic system. A higher level realization always has the
same meaning in some respect as the items falling beneath it. For example, the
lexical items, "fruit," "vegetables," "meat," and "bread" have "food" as their
variant. "Food" is an alternative realization of a linguistic element such as
"bread" or "meat" on a higher level in the linguistic system. Similarly, this
higher level realization, "food," always has the same meaning in some respect as
the items falling beneath it, in this case, "fruit, vegetables, meat, bread."
Thus "fruit" can mean "food," "vegetables" can mean "food," "meat" can mean
"food," and "bread" can mean "food," while the lexical item "food" can be used
to mean any of the foregoing; they are technically variants of the word, "food."
Similarly, in John "spirit, the above, life, light, not of the/this world,
freedom, truth, love" are all variants of the "new reality" which John
identifies with and in Jesus of Nazareth. On the contrary, "the flesh, the
below, death, darkness, this/the world, slavery, lie, hate" are all variants of
what John and the collectivity addressed in the work oppose, the "old reality"
of the society from which they came.
3.2.2. Uniquely New
However the significant thing about the lexical items (words and sentences)
distinctive of an antilanguage, as Halliday notes, is that many of them have no
equivalent meanings at all in the standard language of the broader society.
Sentences such as: "I and the Father (= God) are one" (John 10:30); "Truly,
truly I say to you, before Abraham was, I am (8:58); or the identification of
Jesus of Nazareth with the pre-existing Word of God become flesh (1:1ff) would
simply be meaningless in the language of the broader society. This does not mean
that they could not be understood and judged to be meaningless, or that they
could not be translated (after all, our English versions do them adequate
justice). Rather, what it does mean is that such propositions do not function as
meaning bearing language in the semantic system of regular language, even the
regular "religious" language of contemporary early Christianity and the house of
Israel. It is quite significant to note that there are no such sentences in the
writings of Paul or the other gospels and non-Johannine New Testament
3.2.3. Metaphorical Meaning
The foregoing considerations point to the fact that an antilanguage is a
metaphor for the regular language of society at large. Metaphorization takes
place when some common, often implicit, quality proper to one entity is
predicated of another, e.g., "My brother is a lion." Here the implicit property
is strength or ferocity; thus the explicit sentence would read: "My brother is
as strong as/as ferocious as a lion." In antilanguage, such a metaphorical
quality appears all the way through the system. Halliday tells us that it is
this metaphorical quality that defines an antilanguage. In John, this
metaphorical quality can be seen in the "I am . . ." statements where Jesus says
of himself: "I am bread, light, a door, life, way, vine," and the like. The
metaphorical quality inherent in the list of
ambiguity—misunderstanding—clarification sequences noted previously also point
to the same thing. Metaphor constitutes the element of antilanguage that is
present in all language to some extent. For much of everyday language is in fact
metaphorical, e.g., horsepower in an automobile, a cell in biology, conceiving
ideas. Yet the metaphorical quality of everyday language is lost and has come to
be identified with regular speech, with reality itself. On the other hand, what
distinguishes an antilanguage is that when it is compared with the existing
language system of the culture in which it emerges and the society against which
it stand, it is itself a metaphorical entity. Hence in antilanguage,
metaphorical modes of expression are the norm. Metaphorical modes of expression
are an antilanguage's regular pattern of realization.
As pointed out previously, the main form of discourse used in socialization
and in reality maintenance is conversation. The reality generating and
maintaining power of language lies in conversation. It is cumulative and depends
for its effectiveness on continuous enforcement in social interaction. Now
John's gospel is really the only New Testament writing presenting extended
conversations. Furthermore, all the great Johannine metaphors emerge in
conversations. Their metaphorical points are made in conversation, thus
maintaining the resocialization quality of the work in the reader's/hearer's
being addressed by Jesus in these conversations as the dialogue becomes
monologue. In the resocialization process conversation relies heavily upon
foregrounding and highlighting interpersonal meanings, and the great Johannine
conversations surely do that. Finally, conversation depends for its power to
generate reality on its being casual. In John, again, Jesus' many and frequent
conversations so often point to casual encounters with individuals with whom the
group member can empathize and thus take on the role of conversation partner as
Jesus moves on to monologue in the second part of these conversations.
A final point Halliday makes is that within the ideational mode of meaning
(what is being talked about), an antilanguage may adopt linguistic structures
and lexical collocations that are self-consciously opposed to the norms of
established language. This is typical of the more intellectual antilanguages.
Now there is evidence of this feature in John, although many such items are
"translated out" in English versions, e.g. in John the verb "to believe" most
often has the preposition "into"; Jesus refers to his death as "being lifted
up"; and for John seeing is believing throughout the story of Jesus' activity.
Consequently, the modes of linguistic expression in antilanguage, when seen from
the standpoint of the established language, appear diffuse, round about and
metaphorical—and so they are from that angle.
But seen on their own terms, they appear direct and forceful, powerful
manifestations of the linguistic system in the service of socialization into a
new reality. It is the reality being experienced and newly interpreted that is
oblique, since it can only be seen as a metaphorical transformation of the
"true" reality of the greater society. But the function of an antilanguage text
with respect to that reality is a reinforcing one, all the more direct because
it is a reality which needs much reinforcement. It is the new reality, the new
experience and perceptions, of their group.
It should be clear by now that John's is, indeed, quite different from the
other gospels and that John's group was quite different from other Christian
associations in the first century Mediterranean. The foregoing considerations
deriving from sociolinguistics point up precisely why this is the case. One can
readily see the quality of the John's group. John writes for persons actually
living in an alternate society embedded in a larger society, that of "this
world" and of "Judeans." While we may presume that John's social situation does
not determine his personal genius or the exact form that his work has taken, we
can be reasonably certain that this social situation did determine and define
the limits within which he was able to select features that would make sense to
his audience as well as the general shape of the patterns of perception
available to members of his group. The perceptions of the author of John and of
the association to which he belonged were realized and articulated in language,
and John's language is antilanguage.
Accommodation, Antilanguage and Love
While many persons are motivated to read the gospels to "follow Christ" and
discover a way of life, those who read John are bound to be disappointed. For
aside from the ritual of foot-washing (standing for forgiveness and
reconciliation, see Malina 1993:
75-81) and Jesus insistence that his disciples follow his commandments, only a
single commandment is to be found in the whole gospel, the commandment to "love
one another." What is curious about this gospel, then, is that it has little if
any indication of what it takes to be a disciple except to be attached to Jesus
and to the group. Thus the foot-washing ritual and the love command are the
burden of John for the ingroup. There are really no other commandments.
Yet speech accommodation theory suggests that the successful author must
converge with the audience. Within the framework of an antisociety, the thrust
of antilanguage is to underscore the interpersonal and result in bonding among
members. Jesus' repeated love command in John does the same and looks to
identical outcomes. Such interpersonal solidarity and bonding requires a degree
of intimacy (see Knapp 1983; 1984).
"Intimacy . . . refers to variations in knowledge of and/or commitment to one's
relationship partner" (Knapp 1983: 192).
As a sort of appendix to our consideration of John's speech accommodation and
antilanguage, I should like to present a typology of linguistic features that
underscore group attachment in terms of intimacy. Knapp has developed a scale of
the general dimensions of communication associated with relationship
development. The scale moves in either direction from more to less intimacy and
vice-versa. The dimensions he employs represent the content, diversity, quality,
patterning and interpretation of messages and interactions (Knapp 1983; 1984:
13-23). Knapp's General Dimensions of Communication Associated with Relationship
Knapp's General Dimensions of
Associated with Relationship Development
TOWARD MORE INTIMACY
<------------------------- TOWARD LESS
|Narrow . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Broad|
|Stylized . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Unique|
|Difficult . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Efficient|
|Rigid . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Flexible|
|Awkward . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Smooth|
|Public . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Personal|
|Hesitant . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Spontaneous|
|Overt Judgment Suspended . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . Overt Judgment Given|
After briefly presenting each of these features, I offer a sampling of
evidence from John to indicate how John's language moves toward greater intimacy
throughout the work.
This dimension refers to the variety and quality of messages communicated: a
contracting or expanding number of messages as well as the refinement of ideas
and feelings to communicate. John surely points to an expanding number of
messages for group members.
* Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were
to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not
yet glorified (John 7:39).Presumably persons in John's group knew about these "many other
things" and shared their information with group members.
* But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the
Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your
remembrance all that I have said to you (John 14:26).
* I have yet many
things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth
comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own
authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the
things that are to come (John 16:12- 13).
* But there are also many other
things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that
the world itself could not contain the books that would be written (John
First contact with others takes place in terms of stylized behavior widely
employed and understood by others. As a person gets to know another better in
terms of difference from others, greater intimacy is revealed by more
personalized communication devices adapted to the peculiar nature of the
Intimates develop more specialized and unique communication patterns adapted
to the particular characteristics of their personalities and relationship.
Consider the opening conversations with those who would become intimates:
* He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him, and said, "So you are
Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas" (which means Peter) (John
1:42).Jesus gives Simon a nickname right from the outset. Ingroup nicknames
are indication of unique relations.
* Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and said of him, "Behold, an
Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!" Nathanael said to him, "How do you
know me?" Jesus answered him, "Before Philip called you, when you were under
the fig tree, I saw you." Nathanael answered him, "Rabbi, you are the Son of
God! You are the King of Israel!" (John 1:47-49).Again, notice the lavish
title, right from the outset, again, pointing to unique relations.
Further indications in the direction of uniqueness: Jesus' knowledge of the
Samaritan woman's singular situation of having five husbands and her recognizing
him as "prophet" (John 4:17-19); Mary, sister of Lazarus, anointing Jesus (John
11:2); Jesus' socially incredible washing of his disciple's feet (John
However less intimacy is indicated by return to stylized expressions. Judas'
kiss (Mark 14:45; Matt 26:49; Luke 22:47-48) was a stylized greeting of a
friend. Mention of this kiss is lacking in John (but not Judas' traitorous
presence: John 18:2-3), perhaps alluding to previous intimate
As intimacy increases, there is a gradual increase in accuracy and
efficiency of communication. This is a dimension of supplying context. Greater
intimacy points to high context communication in which relatively little has to
be spelled out. The whole of John's gospel, directed at the ingroup as it is, is
an instance of extremely high context communication.
* I tell you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place
you may believe that I am he (John 13:19).
On the other hand, no intimacy points to extremely low context. The
ignorance of outgroup persons indicates misunderstanding and non-understanding,
hence low context situations, requiring much explanation and clarification:
* Jesus knew that they wanted to
ask him; so he said to them, "Is this what you are asking yourselves, what I
meant by saying, 'A little while, and you will not see me, and again a little
while, and you will see me'? (John 16:19)
* Then he said to Thomas, "Put
your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my
side; do not be faithless, but believing (John 20:27).
* When they heard these words, some of the people said, "This is really
the prophet." Others said, "This is the Christ." But some said, "Is the Christ
to come from Galilee? Has not the scripture said that the Christ is descended
from David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?" So there
was a division among the people over him (John 7:40-43).On the other hand,
high context may lead to overconfidence that leads to periods of
difficulty—periods when old assumptions are no longer valid (hence
misunderstanding and non-understanding).
* Just then his disciples came. They marveled that he was talking with a
woman, but none said, "What do you wish?" or, "Why are you talking with her?"
(John 4: 27).
* Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, "Let
us also go, that we may die with him" (John 11:16).
As persons know each other, they are able to communicate the same idea or
feeling in several different ways. This is what flexibility points to. Yet it is
possible that only some messages are subjected to message flexibility, while
others are not. On the other hand, new acquaintances and persons terminating
relationships have fewer channels of communication and maintain more consistent
ways of communicating any given message.
Previously, I noted that the synonyms for the activities of discipleship and
being related to Jesus ("to believe, come, abide, follow, love, keep words,
receive, have, see") and the terms for the two contrasting realms ("the above,
spirit," etc., and "the below, flesh," etc.) point in the direction of the
antilanguage, interpersonal component of language. Yet it is equally true that
this whole vocabulary fits this flexibility pattern that moves in the direction
Intimates have an inclination toward fusion—psychologically and
behaviorally. They understand what the other is up to; they can anticipate moves
and choices. They often accommodate their language styles to those of others in
order to enhance perceptions of similarity and to increase attraction. The
metaphor of Jesus the vine points to social fusion in John's association (John
15:1-7). One cannot get closer than: "Abide in me, and I in you" (15:4).
Disciples will even find the words for such smooth speech:
* For I have given them [disciples] the words which you [God] gave me, and
they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have
believed that you did send me (John 17:8).
New acquaintances display less interpersonal meshing or synchrony; they are
more awkward and less synchronized. Yet some people show a high degree of
smoothness on certain limited topics (e.g., salesmen, TV preachers, con
We first reveal our public selves to others. As intimacy increases, we
gradually reveal more and more of our personal and private selves to our
relationship partners. Revelation of personal thoughts, feelings, and beliefs
provide personal information. Such access to the personal sphere is replicated
in (1) increased proximity, (2) more bodily touching in general, (3) touching
certain body parts inaccessible to others, (4) looking into the eyes of another
for extended periods (5) looking at another's body or specific body parts, (6)
relaxation of any body tension suggesting a "guarded" approach, etc. Verbalized
feedback increases as intimacy increases.
In John this movement from public to private comes through in the very
structure of the work. From John 1:19 to 12:50 we are amid the outgroup, as
disciples observe greater and lesser degrees of closeness with Jesus; but from
13:1 to 17:26 we are in the exclusive presence of the ingroup and privacy. John
reports a well wrought piece of personal revelation simply not meant for the
public. That the disciples are moving in this direction even in the first part
of the story is indicated by Peter: "Simon Peter answered him, 'Lord, to whom
shall we go? You have the words of eternal life'" (John 6:68).
With the collapse of intimacy, behaviors representing public selves
Intimacy brings an increase in spontaneity, a lack of observable planning.
Knapp notes that the explicitness of a person's hesitancy or spontaneity may
vary, but nonverbal indications in gesture such as the style and speed of
gestures and their quality underscore the spontaneity of the direction of
intimacy or its opposite. Communication with new acquaintances and former
intimates (less predictable others) is likely to be cautious and hesitant.
Thus in John, we find spontaneity, hence intimacy, indicated by the
* One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was lying close to the breast of
Jesus; so Simon Peter beckoned to him and said, "Tell us who it is of whom he
speaks." So lying thus, close to the breast of Jesus, he said to him, "Lord,
who is it?" Jesus answered, "It is he to whom I shall give this morsel when I
have dipped it." So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the
son of Simon Iscariot (John 13:23-26).Perhaps the same is indicated by the
behavior of Mary, sister of Lazarus (John 11:2) and of Thomas who acts like a
former intimate restored to intimacy by Jesus' invitation: "Put your finger
here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side" (John
4.8. Overt Evaluation Suspended/Given
With intimates, we begin sharing our previously covert evaluations first in
general and positive dimensions, and subsequently with both positive and
negative feedback. Further, evaluations move beyond stereotypical cues and are
articulated to intimates with highly significant evaluative signals. The longer
intimates are with each other, the more they have at stake. Evaluations are
avoided in emotionally sensitive areas.
* Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not
know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say,
'Show us the Father'? (John 14:9).
All the dimensions of intimacy generally stabilize within a range that is
below the peak achieved or achievable. Yet even in more intimate relationships,
the discussion of certain topics or on certain occasions may take on the
qualities of non-intimate relationships. Significantly in John's story, Jesus
presumably broaches an off-limits topic when he really never tells his disciples
where he is ultimately going:
* "A little while, and you will see me no more; again a little while, and
you will see me." Some of his disciples said to one another, "What is this
that he says to us, 'A little while, and you will not see me, and again a
little while, and you will see me'; and, 'because I go to the Father'?" They
said, "What does he mean by 'a little while'? We do not know what he means."
Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him; so he said to them, "Is this what you
are asking yourselves, what I meant by saying, 'A little while, and you will
not see me, and again a little while, and you will see me'? Truly, truly, I
say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be
sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy" (John 16:16-20).Even worse,
he tells them they cannot come anyway:
* Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me; and
as I said to the Judeans so now I say to you, "Where I am going you cannot
come" (John 13:13).
In sum, the whole of John abounds in statements, scenes and behavioral
descriptions that are redolent of "love," that is of group attachment, of the
interpersonal dimension of language, in sum of intimacy. The story of Jesus
moves in the direction of greater intimacy between Jesus and his own. In fact,
in the end, the focal personage in the story with whom the audience would
identify is the disciple whom Jesus loved, the beloved disciple (13:23;
18:15-16; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7,20).
While speech accommodation theory and the sociolinguistic mode of analysis
are simply first steps to understanding the Johannine group by means of the text
of John, they are important first steps. For they furnish insight into and an
explanation for the distinctive Johannine ways of describing God and human
relations with God. This insight and explanation, of course, are rooted in the
social behavior of John's association, behavior used as analogy to explain the
God revealed in Jesus. Further, this mode of analysis enables the interpreter to
come to know and appreciate the personages who embodied faith in Jesus in first
century, Mediterranean contexts typical of alternate societies—their willingness
to identify Jesus as access to the divinity of Israelite tradition, their
self-distancing from their original mooring in temple-based Israelite Yahwism,
and their emphatic stance relative to interpersonal commitment within their
And it helps the modern student to discover the sort of persons to be found
in that difficult yet exhilarating social situation, persons who made sense of
the overarching meaning of human existence "in Jesus" in highly creative and
significant ways. Finally, such analysis highlights the ever present problem of
individuals and their groups who lived in alternate societies. Alternate
societies are impermanent arrangements within a broader society. Persons who
form alternate societies must eventually face the need to return to stable
society and an articulation of Christianity befitting such stable society.
Perhaps the Johannine letters likewise intimate this movement, with the
beginnings of the dissolution of John's antisocietal group.
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