Characterization of the Greeks
in John 12
Elizabeth Danna, Burlington, Ontario
I would like to draw attention to a passage which, in my opinion, has not received the scholarly attention which it deserves. It slips by the reader unnoticed, but I suggest that it is a key passage. At the end of the first part of the Gospel, some Greeks approach Philip with a request to see Jesus. The passage under consideration in this paper is 12:20-36.
The passage begins with the arrival of the Greeks and their request (vv. 20-22). This pericope has attracted surprisingly little attention. Few besides those writing commentaries on the entire Gospel have dealt with it; and many of those seem to discuss it only for the same reason that Hillary climbed Mount Everest - because it is there. Even Raymond Brown has little to say besides,
The theological import [of this scene] has so dominated the writer's interest that he has abbreviated his picture of what happened to the point of making it enigmatic...The very awkwardness of all this suggests that a poorly known incident from early tradition has been used as the basis for theological adaptation.Most commentators make little or no more of this passage than does Brown. R. A. Culpepper, in his chapter on characters in Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, does not mention the Greeks at all. Bultmann directs most of his attention to discussing the Gnostic/Mandaean texts which he claims are parallels to 12:20-36. I suggest that a literary reading of this passage yields a somewhat clearer, and different, picture.
As Jesus arrives in Jerusalem for the last time, to the acclaim of the crowds, some Greeks approach Philip with a request to see Jesus. Jesus, informed of the request by Philip and Andrew, interprets it as a sign that his much-anticipated "hour" has arrived. The hour has been mentioned several times before this point in the Gospel, and always it has been said that the hour has not yet come. Nor has there been any explanation of what the hour means. Now the hour has finally come, and Jesus explains that it is the hour of his glorification. But almost immediately the implied reader begins to suspect that there is more to this than first meets the eye. For Jesus says that it is only when a seed dies that it can produce a crop. If the hour is the hour of Jesus' glorification, it is also the hour of his suffering and death, for he is the seed that must die in order to be fruitful. The thought causes him intense anguish, but he soon steadies himself with the thought that by his death the Father will be glorified. This is why the hour of death is also the hour of glorification - because Jesus seeks the Father's glory, not his own. What applies to Jesus also applies to his servants - glory comes only through suffering.
Let us now turn to characterisation. (In this paper I am building on studies done by Mark Allan Powell on the Synoptics and by David Gowler on Luke-Acts, using a selection of their categories of characterisation). The first of our categories of characterisation is that of direct definition. The first thing that comes under this category is that the Greeks have come up to Jerusalem for Passover (12:20). This indicates that they are either God-fearers or full-fledged proselytes. To which group do they belong? Scholars are divided on the question. Those who think that the Greeks are God-fearers include Carson, Morris, Lindars, and Lagrange; those who think that they are proselytes include Marsh, Brown, Bultmann, and Kossen. My own view is that the text does not make it clear into which group they fall. This leads me to ask whether the matter is really that important to the implied author. If it were, he would specify to which group they belong. What is important to him, I suggest, is that they are Greeks, that is, that they are Gentiles.
The second thing which comes under this category follows closely on the first. At 12:21 the Greeks are said to come to Philip with a request. This sounds straightforward enough; but there is more to it than at first meets the eye. For in the Gospel of John [pros]ercesqai is a significant word.
For example, at 1:39 "ercesqe kai oyesqe" is a call to discipleship, phrased in a traditional Rabbinic form. At 3:2 (cf 7:20; 19:39) Nicodemus is said to come to Jesus. At first he is obtuse and uncomprehending, but he eventually comes to more complete discipleship. At 4:30,40a the Samaritan villagers come to Jesus, and soon believe. Note especially that at v.40 when the Samaritans come to Jesus they promptly ask him to stay with them (menein is a key Johannine discipleship-word). At 5:40 Jesus implies that those who come to him have (eternal) life. Since Jesus gives (eternal) life only to his disciples, it can be said that discipleship is being referred to here at 12:20-36. There are several references to coming to Jesus in the discourse of Chapter 6. At vv. 35,37,45 Jesus promises his continuing presence with those who come to him. This is the promise he makes to his disciples (14:18, 23). At vv. 37,44f.,65 Jesus says that those who come do so because they are called by the Father. But if those who come to Jesus come because they are called, then what appears to be a free human decision is in fact determined by God; the idea of election then stands behind the idea of coming.
All this seems to me to indicate that the coming of the Greeks is a coming to belief and discipleship. This is what lends the event of their coming its significance. It is the coming of these Gentiles in faith, I suggest, which signals the coming of Jesus' hour. And there is another reason why it is noteworthy that the Greeks (like the Samaritans at 4:30,40) are said to come. For Jesus is also characterized as one who comes (1:15,30; 3:31; 6:14; 8:23; 11:27; 19:37).
The second of our categories of characterisation is that of indirect presentation. Only one item comes under this category. At 12:21 the Greeks tell Philip that they want to see Jesus - the word used for "see" is idein. In this Gospel idein often refers to more than just ordinary physical sight.
The sight - and this includes, but must not be limited to, physical sight, is sight of the Logos 'become flesh,' become historical...the seeing is neither physical only, nor spiritual only, but the seeing which arises from belief.And yet there is a physical component to this sight, for the Jesus who is seen by faith is a historical man, the Word become flesh (cf. 1:14). As Hoskyns puts it, "The sight of the disciples is to be directed towards the visible historical figure of Jesus, towards his flesh,...but it is to be directed thither in order that they may see that which is beyond historical observation."
According to 1:14 it was those who received the Logos who "saw his glory" - glory which can only be seen by faith. But it must be admitted that there are instances in this Gospel where seeing is merely physical. Is the seeing of the Greeks one of these instances? I suggest that it is not. Brown, commenting on 12:21, says, "'To see' may have the sense of 'to visit with, to meet'...Yet, in the Johannine theological context 'to see' may well mean 'to believe in.'" Given that prosercesqai is used of the Greeks in the same verse, and given what I have just said about coming to Jesus in this Gospel, I suggest that idein here means more than just physical sight. The Greeks do not merely want to meet Jesus. They are open to coming to faith in him.
The third of our categories of characterisation is that of character traits. Without reading anything into the text, it is possible to ascribe to the Greeks two character traits, each of which may be described with one word: hesitancy and anonymity. The first character trait of the Greeks to which I have referred is their hesitancy. Rather than go to Jesus themselves, they go to Philip. Lagrange sarcastically remarks, "Ces braves gens n'osent se présenter eux-mêmes..." He attributes the Greeks' hesitancy to fear. But it may be that their reaction is not fear, but that their hesitancy arises from the awe and respect which they feel is Jesus' due. If this is the case, then they give him the awe and respect which, ironically, the unbelieving "Jews" do not.
The other character trait of the Greeks which I have listed is their anonymity. Adele Reinhartz says that the very anonymity of anonymous characters serves two purposes. First, it focuses the implied reader's attention not on the anonymous characters themselves but on the named characters with whom the anonymous ones interact. Second, their anonymity focuses attention on their typified roles, and thus on the plot and the main characters.
How does this apply to the Greeks? With respect to the first point, their anonymity keeps the reader's attention focused on Jesus. And they bring out certain aspects of Jesus' character, and keep the plot moving (their arrival signals a major turning point in the plot, the arrival of "the hour"). What aspects of Jesus' character do they bring out? They bring out his revelatory knowledge, in the form of his awareness of what their arrival means ("The hour has come...," v.23). They bring out his human qualities in the face of his own death ("Now my soul is in torment," v.27). And they bring out his acceptance of his death as part of the work which he has been sent to accomplish ("For this reason I came to this hour," v.28). The second point draws attention to their role as representative figures, representing the Gentile world, which I have already discussed. In other words, the anonymity of the Greeks focuses attention on their being Greeks.
But there is more to be said than this. David R. Beck argues that the very anonymity of these characters encourages the reader to identify with them as they come to Jesus in faith. Beck discusses all the Gospel's anonymous characters except the Greeks, but what he says applies to them as well (Does he omit the Greeks because they are not explicitly said to make a faith response? But I have argued that their faith is implicit in their coming and seeing). The Greeks' anonymity makes it easy for the implied reader to identify with them as they come to Jesus in faith.
The Greeks interact with Philip only briefly, and with Andrew not at all; do they actually get to meet Jesus? The text does not tell us whether they do or not. Whether or not they get to talk with Jesus at this point, there is a sense in which they cannot truly see him until after the resurrection.
Finally, it may be asked if the fact of the brief and open-ended appearance of the Greeks has some significance. Stephen Barton supplies an answer to that question:
The emphasis, rhetorically, falls upon Jesus' heavy and disturbing demand, in the face of which a decision by each individual follower has to be made. Interestingly, we are not told how the...individuals respond, so the narrative tension remains unresolved: an effective way of leaving the implied reader the question of how he/she would/should respond in the light of Jesus' demanding call.To sum this subsection up: we have seen that the Greeks are given two character traits, each of which may be described with one word - hesitancy and anonymity. The hesitancy arises from respect, and anonymity is a character trait which, surprisingly, allows the Greeks to play a significant role in the narrative. It allows the implied author to make them point up some significant character traits of the major characters, and keep the plot moving, without deflecting attention away unduly from the plot and the major characters. More than that, it allows the implied reader to identify with them.
I have described the appearance of the Greeks as brief and open-ended. But if it is brief and open-ended, is it unexpected? Perhaps not, in view of the idea of election which appears in this Gospel. In fact the coming of the Greeks may be seen as a fulfillment of Jesus' word, in two ways. First, he has said earlier that he has "other sheep that do not belong to this fold," whom he must bring, so that there may be one flock with one shepherd (10:16). There is general agreement that these "sheep" are Gentile Christians. If this is so, then the Greeks are the first of these other sheep. The people of God are being redefined to include those who were previously outsiders. Second, their coming may be seen to be a fulfillment of Jesus' word in that it signals the coming of the hour, which Jesus has predicted. As I have said, the Greeks come, something which cannot happen unless the Father draws them. More than that, Jesus makes it clear that he chooses his disciples rather than the reverse, even if they think that it is they who have chosen him.
The fourth of our categories of characterisation is that of evaluative point of view. We have seen that the Greeks come, something which can only happen if the Father draws them (6:37,44f.,65), and which implies that they are disciples. They also say that they want to see (idein) Jesus. Jesus has come so that those who do not see may see (9:39). Given what I have said about coming and seeing in this Gospel, it can be said that the Greeks' evaluative point of view is aligned with that of God, as represented by Jesus.
The fifth of our categories of characterisation is that of cultural scripts. According to Bruce Malina, in the first-century Mediterranean world every social interaction that takes place outside one's circle of family and friends is perceived as a challenge to honor. Such a challenge, whether it takes the form of a gift given, an invitation to dinner, a proposal for a joint business venture or a request of some other kind, cannot go unanswered; it demands a response. Looked at in this way, the Greeks' request of v. 21, as a request, can be seen as an opening challenge to Jesus. The challenge is not made to Jesus directly, but through Philip (it is noteworthy that they begin the challenge with a respectful "Sir"). Jesus' statement at vv. 25f are then his counterchallenge, in which he makes clear the demands of discipleship. This counterchallenge in turn demands a response on the part of the Greeks. But the implied author has not recorded a response, and I do not believe that this is accidental, nor that material has been lost or displaced from between vv. 22 and 23. Rather the lack of response encourages the implied reader to finish the story for himself. On one level he is asked to work out what the Greeks will do; on a deeper level he is asked to consider how he himself will respond to Jesus' challenge. It also (even more so?) focuses his attention on Jesus and his words. It is as if the implied author is saying, like John, "He must increase, and I must decrease" (3:30).
The mention of the idea of challenge and counterchallenge raises the question of honour/shame considerations. The Greeks honour Jesus by the respectful way in which they approach him. And there is another way in which honour appears in this passage. Paradoxically, those who submit themselves and become Jesus' servants thereby gain honour from the Father.
The relationship which is initiated by the Greeks has the character of a patron-client contract. It is this kind of contract which Jesus describes at vv. 25f. Such a contract entails obligations on both sides. Those who want to be Jesus' servants/clients must follow him, and be where he is in suffering and death. In return, as the patron-benefactor, he will bring them to where he is in glory (cf. 14:3), and they will have honour ascribed to them by the Father besides. Seeing the relationship between Jesus and "his own" as a patron-client relationship may also explain why the Greeks go to Philip rather than to Jesus directly, for it was considered appropriate for the person of lower status to approach the person of higher status through an intermediary.
The sixth of our categories of characterisation is that of empathy, sympathy, and antipathy. Given all that I have said about the characterisation of the Greeks, how does the implied reader feel toward them? Because the evaluative point of view which they espouse is aligned with that of God, the implied reader does not feel antipathy toward them. The implied reader in the Gospels is likely to share Jesus' attitude toward other characters, because Jesus is the protagonist of the Gospels. Jesus' attitude toward the Greeks is difficult to determine; all that can be said with certainty is that he does not send them away. He has promised that he will not send away anyone who comes to him (6:35). In general it can be said that the implied reader probably sympathises with the Greeks, identifying with them in their desire to come to Jesus and to see him.
Let us draw the threads of this paper together. In chapter 4 Jesus makes contact with a group of Samaritans who come to believe in him. Here at the close of Jesus' public ministry, and after his entry into Jerusalem, another group of non-Jews, this one Greeks, want to see him. To the Jews of the first century AD Samaritans were considered neither Jews nor Gentiles, but something in between. Now in chapter 12 Jesus' ministry has expanded even further, and reached those who are undoubted Gentiles.
That this is a turning point in the plot of the Gospel cannot be doubted, for it signals the arrival of Jesus' hour and the climax and end of his public ministry. As soon as he is informed of the Greeks' request, Jesus is aware of its significance. For himself, it means that the hour of suffering and glory has come; for humanity, it means that the time of judgement and choice has arrived. It also provides Jesus with an opportunity for some key teaching on the nature of discipleship.
If the coming of the Greeks is a turning point in the plot of the Gospel, it is also a turning point in salvation history. For with the coming of Jesus and the coming of his hour, the people of God are redefined. The distinction is no longer the ethnically-based one between Jew and Gentile, but between those who respond positively to Jesus and those who do not. And at this moment when official Jewish rejection of Jesus is about to become complete, the Gentiles want to be part of the people of God.
We can see, then, that the short pericope of the Greeks is more significant than previous studies have acknowledged. When looking at the characterisation of this character group we also found that the implied author has said some significant things with their characterisation. They are said to come and to see, both significant Johannine words connected with faith and discipleship, and even their anonymity has a surprising significance.
 The Gospel According
to John (London, 1966-70), 1:470.
 R.H. Lightfoot, St. John's Gospel: A Commentary (Oxford, 1956), 84ff.
 Edwin C. Hoskyns, The Fourth Gospel (London, 1947) 183.
 John, 1:466.
 Evangile selon S. Jean (Paris, 1948) 329.
 S.C. Barton, Discipleship and Family Ties in Mark and Matthew (Cambridge, 1993), 152. Barton is referring to Matt. 8:18-22, but his statement applies equally to John 12:20-36.
Besides the standard commentaries I have used the following:
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Copyright 1999 by Elizabeth Danna. All rights reserved.
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