Lamb, David A. Text, Context, and the Johannine Community. LNTS 477; London: T&T Clark, 2014. 232pp. Hb; $110.00; Pb. $39.95 (2013), PDF eBook $27.95.   Link to Bloomsbury  

In this revision of his 2012 doctoral thesis at the University of Manchester, David Lamb evaluates Raymond Brown’s Johannine Community using recent insights from sociolinguistics, primarily genre and register. Few scholars have had an impact on a field within biblical studies like Raymond Brown, and although many of the details of his Johannine Community model have been challenged and abandoned, it is impossible to study the Gospel of John without taking into consideration his ideas.

lamb-johannine-communityThe first two chapters of Lamb’s book are a necessary overview of the “rise and fall” of the Johannine Community in scholarship. He begins his literature with Martyn, Culpepper and Cullman as precursors to Brown as well several scholars who developed the theory after Brown’s initial work. Wayne Meeks developed thesis that the Community was sectarian in nature, so that the Gospel is a “book for insiders” rather than a universal Gospel for all Christians. This is the direction of the work of Bruce Malina and Jerome Neyrey. Lamb gives significant attention to Edward Klink’s Sheep of the Fold (Cambridge 2007), calling it “the most sustained attack on the Johannine Community to date” (21). In this dissertation written under the supervision of Richard Bauckham, Klink argues there was no local audience for the Gospel of John. In fact, it is largely impossible to move from text to social location with any degree of certainty.

Most recent introductions to John’s Gospel will trace a similar history and then state the Johannine Community theory is less popular than it once was. Lamb surveys a series of scholars who have contributed to this erosion. This includes evangelicals like Morris, Carson, and Köstenberger who are more interested in traditional authorship of the Gospel of John as well as Richard Bauckham’s suggestion John is a gospel “for all Christians” rather than a narrow sectarian document.

The second chapter of this monograph presents Brown’s Johannine Community. It is not necessary to summarize the well-known development of Brown’s work here, but it is significant that Brown himself understood his reconstruction of a Johannine Community was only a “probability” (29), but one based on what he considered a scientific, critical foundation. Lamb is right to describe Brown as a faithful Catholic scholar who did his work in the spirit of modernism. Brown used the historical-critical method, including source and redaction criticism and was deeply suspicious of newer hermeneutical methods (43). Lamb suggests his use of these methods was tempered by his allegiance to the Catholic Church (54). His method did, however, employ a “two level” reading of the Gospel of John, so that the blind man in John 9 is “acting out the history of the Johannine Community” (42).

In order to critique Brown’s Johannine Community theory, Lamb employs a sociolinguistic method to better understand the relationship between text and context. The third chapter of this monograph therefore introduces the reader to sociolinguistics and defines key terms (genre, register, style and dialect). Genre refers to relatively stable forms of discourse. By “register” Lamb means the way language varies according to its social situation. For example, a scientific text has a different register than a religious text. By style Lamb refers to an author’s idiolect, the particular choice of words or grammatical features. By dialect Lamb choices of vocabulary according to the culture of the writer. It is the variety of language which may say something about the “context of culture” behind a text. After surveying several examples Lamb concludes that register analysis may help to define the “context of situation” of the Gospel of John as the well as the relationship between the implied readers of the text and the actual readers. That relationship will be “realized in terms of its tenor” (101).

Although Raymond Brown was reluctant to describe the community as secretary in, this is not been the case for other New Testament scholars. In his fourth chapter Lamb explores the idea of antilanguage, by which he means the way that he community defines or redefines terminology along sectarian lines. Wayne Meeks thought the Johannine community was sectarian, other scholars described as a “countercultural group.” If this is the case, then we ought to expect relexicalization of common vocabulary in order to create insiders and outsiders. For example, prisoners create new words or redefine old words in order to create an insider language that sets them apart from prison staff. Another example might be teenagers who regularly redefine words or use them in ways radically different than their parents’ generation. If this kind of antilanguage appears in the Gospel of John, then it is evidence the community was sectarian. But after examining some examples in the Gospel, Lamb finds this thesis to be unacceptable Although there are a number of words in John’s Gospel which contrast to spheres of existence (spirit above in contrast to flesh below), none of these are redefine nor are there examples of new vocabulary unique to the community. Lamb offers several suggestions to explain this. First, there is simply not enough data to a sociolinguistic method to achieve results in the Gospel of John. Second, even if there was antilanguage in the Gospel, it does not necessarily imply the readers were members of an “antisociety.” Even a dominant group uses “coded language” (141).

For Lamb, previous attempts to use sociolinguistics to the Gospel of John have been rigorous enough because these attempts are dominated by the assumption of a Johannine Community which is sectarian (145).  He therefore devotes his fifth chapter to the register of John’s Gospel. Lamb surveys the narrative asides in the Gospel since these are from the author, paying close attention to the possibility of new words created by the writer, speech functions and modulations of clauses, use of personal pronouns and vocative adjuncts. By assessing the use of these features, Lamb draws conclusions with respect to power, contact and affective involvement. Who holds the “power” in the relationship, the author or the reader? What is the level of contact between the two? The higher the affective involvement, the more likely the “context of situation” is a close-knit community.

In each of these three categories, neither the Gospel nor the Epistles imply a close-knit community. The author hold all the power and there is no evidence of contact in the narrative asides in the Gospel. There is some contact in 2 and 3 John, but this contact is slight in comparison to the rest of the Johannine literature. It is possible Ἀγαπητοί in 1 John implies some affective involvement, but Lamb considers this language was used for rhetorical value rather than implying a community. Lamb does not consider Τεκνία μου in 1 John, presumably this would also be considered a rhetorical device.

Does Lamb’s register analysis signal the death of the Johannine Community? As Lamb states in his concluding chapter, he has attempted to chart a course between historical criticism and literary methods, Brown himself was only interested in the former and was suspicious of the latter. He concludes Bauckham and Klink are correct, the audience of John’s Gospel is “broad and hard to define” and certainly not an introverted, sectarian community (203). For scholars who want to continue to use the Johannine Community hypothesis, they need to bear in mind the language of the Gospel is sociolect rather than idiolect and is targeted at a loose network of communities which may have formed around the Gospel.

Conclusion. David Lamb has employed what is for many a new method for understanding the “context of situation” behind the Gospel of John. Such literary methods are often arcane and create terminology which unnecessarily obfuscates. To his credit, Lamb develops his register analysis in a way which brings clarity to the ongoing discussion of the Johannine Community.


NB: Thanks to Bloomsbury for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.