SBL 2001
Papers Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature
Denver, CO - November 17-20, 2001
Characterization at the Crossroads

Ingrid Rosa Kitzberger
Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, CA

Presented to the Joint Session of the "Synoptic Gospels Section" and the "Johannine Literature Section"
at the AAR/SBL Annual Meeting in Denver, CO,

[Copyright 2001, by Ingrid Rosa Kitzberger.  All rights reserved. This is a draft version of a work still in progress; please do not copy or cite anything from this paper without explicit permission of the author.]

Meeting at the Crossroads

After these things Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate to take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave permission. Then he took him down and wrapped him in the linen cloth which he had brought. "Heís heavy as a stone," Joseph thought to himself, surprised and bewildered. "Who will help me carry away my Lord?," he wondered, stumbling along the stony road to the nearby garden tomb.

Nicodemus, who at first had come to Jesus by night, also came to the cross. But searching for Jesusí body he found him not. "They have taken away my Lord without even telling me," he thought to himself, with resentful sadness. Turning round he saw a man with a heavy load, and he knew it was them. So he ran to Joseph. Together they went to the tomb, and they laid Jesus there. "Itís finished," they murmured, and silently they went home, separating at the crossroads. Arriving at home, Nicodemus saw the spices he had prepared for Jesus, a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds. "How could I have forgotten?," he wondered about himself. Immediately he put the spices in his treasure box and started running back to the tomb. Because the sabbath was about to begin.

The women who had come with him from Galilee had followed them, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. "How could they have forgotten?," they wondered. And since time was short before the sun would set, they immediately ran back to the tomb.

And so they met, at the crossroads near the garden tomb. It was Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herodís stuart Chuza, Susanna, and the other women with them, and Nicodemus, the Pharisee and leader of the Jews, who was still waiting to be re-born. They looked at each other, puzzled, and said: "And now Ė what?"


Surprise Encounters at the Crossroads Between John and the Synoptics

Journeying along with Synoptic and Johannine women and men I have become the crossroads where they meet, often for the first time, and I have witnessed to their surprise and puzzlement. With awe and wonder they have stared at each other, not knowing so far of the otherís very existence, or looking at their alter egos without recognizing themselves.

"Is it really us?," the Johannine Mary and Martha asked their Synoptic counterparts one day, when they met at the crossroads outside Bethany, where one street leads to the Galilean village where the latter had come from.

"We haventít met before, have we?," Joseph of Arimathea, the Synoptic one, said to Nicodemus when they, just by chance, ran into each. "Oh yes, we have," Nicodemus replied, "Donít you remember? We buried Jesus in your garden tomb." Since it had been such a long time, Joseph had forgotten; Alzheimer had taken over. "Oh, the body," he murmered.

"I have given birth to Jesus," Mary, the one from Luke, insisted, when reading the Prologue which the Beloved Disciple had given her. "Take a drink," the Samaritan woman gently prodded Jesusí mother, who, after all, was no longer so sure she was.

For 2000 years Synoptic and Johannine women and men have peopled the study rooms of biblical scholars and of ordinary readers, who have tried to come to terms with the puzzles and riddles presented to them as soon as they opened the Fourfold Gospel. While some solved the problem by creating a Gospel harmony, others have engaged themselves in learned theories about oral and written traditions, source and redaction criticism, often arriving at results that were just the opposite of the other.

"How can this be?" and "Now Ė what?" have been the two most often asked questions. While the first question addresses the reasons for and the mystery of the differences between John and the Synoptics, the second question addresses the response to the riddle and the action to take. It addresses the issue of paradigm and methods employed in the study of John and the Synoptics. While historical critical methods have proved promising and successful (as far as any method can raise such a claim) with regard to dealing with the similarities and differences among the Synoptic Gospels, a different paradigm and method is required for addressing the relationship between John and the Synoptics. The creativity and freedom of John in composing his/her Gospel asks for a paradigm and method that allow for creativity on part of the readers and for their moving out of and beyond the boundaries of viewing biblical texts as secluded, well defined entities. A more dynamic, bordercrossing approach is called for.

For the past 11 years I have been standing at the crossroads between John and the Synoptics Ė surprised, puzzled, fascinated, challenged. When I attended the Biblical Colloquium in Leuven (Belgium) on "John and the Synoptics" in 1990, a flame was sparked off that kindled a fire still burning. Since I presented a paper on "Love and Footwashing: John 13:1-20 and Luke 7:36-50 Read Intertextually" at the SNTS Annual Meeting in Madrid in 1992, I have developed an intertextual, and in particular an interfigural, approach to John and the Synoptics, focusing on characterization. In fact, characters, so it seems to me, are the ideal test cases for approaching the relationship between John and the Synoptics.

Interfigural Characterization

As I concentrate on characterization as an essential (though until recently widely neglected) aspect of narrative criticism, I employ a reader response approach, in which characterization is regarded as being achieved by a very dynamic process of the readerís creative engagement with the text. Consequently, characterization implies both the construction by the author and the re-construction by the reader. The latter is a very individual process as it depends on the choices a reader makes within the reading process. One and the same text signal can be interpreted in very different ways, due to the actualization and contextualization of certain meaning dimensions either within the immediate narrative context or the story at large. By concentrating on the rhetoric and the discourse of the text, the gradual unfolding of the narrative, and thus also the gradual unfolding of a character within the narrative, are taken seriously into account. Just like the plot of the story, also characters cannot be abstracted from the narrative ebb and flow. Thus, no "summary" or "content" of a character can be arrived at. Reading a character is an event that happens in the transformative encounter between text and reader. Therefore, it goes without saying that each real reader reads a character differently. The readings of character I present to you are therefore my own readings, and sure not the only ones possible. Due to the open nature and the surplus of meaning of any text, different readings are plausible and legitimate.

In my character analysis I have drawn on Chatmanís "open view of character" in which characters are not only evaluated in relation to the plot, but are treated as autonomous beings and are assessed the way we evaluate real people. Consequently, every detail in a text that provides a clue for characterization is taken into account: what a character says or does; what the narrator says about him or her; how she or he is related to other characters; and so on.

In my work on characterization at the crossroads between John and the Synoptics I have paid special attention to those text signals that open up the text of John to Synoptic intertexts, with focus on the relation that is thereby established between the characters. "Interfigurality" is the term and concept coined by Wolfgang G. Mueller, which put me on this track. According to its creator, the term refers to "interrelations that exist between characters of different texts," and it represents "one of the most important dimensions of intertextuality." Thus, interfigurality differs from configuration, which refers to the relation of characters within the same text.

The construction of gender is one important aspect of characterization. With regard to characters in a narrative, gender is constructed by a variety of literary devices: by the roles attributed to a character and by the context in which a character is drawn; by the relation of a character to other characters, male and female, of the same text and of other texts, hence by configuration and by interfigurality. As with all other aspects of characterization, gender is constructed in the text and re-constructed by the reader. Clnsequently, also gendered reading is a very individual process. In what follows, I offer an interfigural reading of Nicodemus that sheds new light not only on the characterization of Nicodemus in general, but also with regard to his gender.

Transcending Gender Boundaries

"After these things," that is, after Jesusí death on the cross, his giving the Spirit to his followers and the piercing of his side, two disciples carry out what is left to be done: Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.put Jesus to his final rest in the gardenn tomb (John 19:38-42). Joseph is described as a "secret disciple" in retrospect, because here, at the end of the Gospel, he turns up for the first time. Now he goes public by providing a decent burial for Jesus. Nicodemus, who comes to assist him in this task, turned up previously in the Gospel, as the narrator indicates by re-introducing him as the one who had come to Jesus by night (v. 39). Thus, the reader is encouraged to recall now what happened then, at the beginning of Jesusí ministry and at the beginning of the Gospel (ch. 3). The nightly encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus was shaped by their talk about re-birth from above. "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the motherís womb and be born?" so Nicodemus has asked, puzzled about Jesusí new option for him (3:4). "How can this be?" Nicodemus asked again, after Jesusí exploration of the nature of the Spirit, necessary for this re-birth (3:6-9). "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?" (v.10). Instead of giving him a decent answer, Jesus rebuked the old rabbi, and left him puzzled and confused. However, like Jesus himself, Nicodemus journeyed on, and we met him briefly when Jesus was put on trial by Nicodemusí fellow Pharisees. On this occasion, Nicodemus spoke up for Jesus and defended him (7:50-51). This time, Nicodemus was rebuked by his fellow Pharisees (v. 52). As in chapter three, Nicodemus disappears again, though he may be considered as being among the Pharisees when they are mentioned in the ensuing narrative. When we arrive at the end of the passion narrative, close to the end of the Gospel, our re-encounter with Nicodemus comes as a surprise. Since chapter three we have been left puzzled just as he himself was, though for other reasons. Because of the open end of the narrative and the ambivalence created around the character of Nicodemus, the task of evaluating him has been left unfinished. In fact, many interpreters have tended to draw a negative portrait of him, following in the footsteps of the narrator who presented Jesus as rebuking the rabbi who should understand but does not. Besides that, Nicodemusí coming to Jesus by night has been interpreted along the lines of Johannine dualism between night and day, light and darkness. As I have shown in detail elsewhere, such a reading is not necessitated by the text; it is the product of making choices by reading chapter three in the context of other chapters. In fact, Nicodemusí defending Jesus allows us a brief glance into Nicodemusí otherwise hidden journey through the Gospel story and suggests a positive evaluation. Encountering Nicodemus again as one of those active in Jesusí burial provides an important element in his characterization. Whereas in the early chapters (chs. 3 and 7) Nicodemus was characterized primarily by what he said, he is now characterized by what he does. "They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices (aromata) in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews" (v. 40). By describing the procedure in detail, the narrator places emphasis on the act, until its final stage, when they place Jesusí body into the new garden tomb (vv. 41-42). While Joseph of Arimathea was the one who asked Pilate for permission for Jesusí body (v. 38), Nicodemus came to assist him as the one responsible for the spices: he brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes (smyrna kai aloe), weighing about a hundred pounds" (v. 39). These spices, as well as the huge amount, are important text signals. They open up this text to other texts.

First, any reader reading the burial scene will recall Mary of Bethany, who, in John 12:1-8, anointed Jesus equally graciously with a pound of costly perfume of pure nard. Thus, configuration is established between Nicodemus and Mary, who anointed Jesus beforehand for his burial (12:7).

Second, any reader familiar with the Synoptic Gospels Ė we present readers, but, as I believe, also at least part of the Johannine first readers Ė will recall the Synoptic anointing stories and consequently link Nicodemus to the women who anointed, or intended to anoint, Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels.

On the one hand, Nicodemus is related to the anonymous woman who anointed Jesusí head in Simonís house (Mark 14:3-9//Matt. 26:3-16). On the other hand, Nicodemus is related to the women who intended to anoint Jesusí body on Easter morning (Mark 16:1-8 parr.).

The huge amount of Nicodemusí spices parallels the precious ointments applied by the unnamed woman who entered Simonís house during a meal and anointed Jesusí head. According to Mark, the pure nard was worth more than three hundred denarii, according to Matthew it was a large sum. A similar waste of money, as indicated by the womanís adversaries, is implied in Nicodemusí huge amount of spices. Generosity was key. The anointing of Jesusí head in Mark and Matthew is interpreted by Jesus himself as an anointing of his body beforehand for his burial (Mk 14:8: Matt. 26:12). Thus, death is the context of the womanís anointing and of Nicodemusí, only their timing is a different one.

The other anointing stories in the Synoptic tradition too are linked to Jesusí death. According to Mark and Luke, the women who followed Jesus come to the tomb on Easter morning in order to anoint Jesusí body and thereby do what was missed out at his actual hurried burial by Joseph of Arimathea. According to Mark, there were three women disciples: Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome (16:1). According to Luke, the company referred to as those who had followed Jesus from Galilee (23:55) comprised more than three women: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary, the mother of James, and the other women with them (24:10). According to Mark, the women "bought spices (aromata) so that they might go and anoint him" (16:1). According to Luke, the women "prepared spices (aromata kai myra) and ointments" (23:56) and came to the tomb "taking the spices (aromata) that they had prepared" (24:1). However, the intended anointing does not come off, because Jesusí body is no longer in the tomb. Matthew is the only Synoptic who obviously took seriously into account that Jesus was already anointed beforehand for his burial; hence there is no need to anoint him a second time. Therefore, in Matthew the women disciples, Mary Magdalene and the "other Mary" (the mother of James and Joseph, 27:56), come to the tomb on Easter morning in order to "see" the tomb (27:1), with no intention to anoint Jesusí body. Luke, on the other hand, who, in 7:36-50 replaced the anointing of Jesusí head by the anointing of his feet, and with no connection to Jesusí death, presents the most detailed account of the womenís intended anointing on Easter morning. Whereas in Mark the women buy the spices after the Sabbath (16:1), in Luke they prepare the spices and ointments right after Jesusí death and they rest during the Sabbath (23:56). Then, they bring the prepared spices to the tomb on Easter morning (24:1). The emphasis on the preparation of the spices, and thus on the intended act of anointing, is obvious. The detailed report in Luke corresponds with the detailed report of Jesusí burial in John, in particular with regard to the application of Nicodemusí spices. This is corroborated by another astonishing parallel. Just as Nicodemus comes along with his spices on the Friday, right after Jesusí death, so the Lukan women prepare their spices on the Friday, right after Jesusí death. Consequently, the interfigurality between Nicodemus and the Synoptic anointing women refers foremost to the Lukan women. Besides that, their characterization as those who have followed Jesus from Galilee (Luke 23:55) corresponds with Nicodemusí characterization as the one who had at first come to Jesus by night (John 19:39). In both cases, those who attend (or intend to attend) to Jesusí anointing are those whom he encountered early during his mission. This implies that, like the women in Luke, Nicodemus has come a long way. However, unlike the Lukan women, he did not travel with Jesus on the road (Luke 8:1-3), but he followed him at some distance, until he was, through Jesusí death, finally attracted to the young rabbi (cf. John 12:32).

The interfigural characterization of Nicodemus by relating him to the Synoptic women adds important dimensions. It implies mainly two things. First, Nicodemusí function at Jesusí burial, and thus Nicodemusí character as such, are evaluated in a clearly positive manner. Second, by attributing the female role of anointing to the man, gender boundaries are transcended. He is characterized in female terms. This, in turn, corresponds with the context in which he was portrayed in chapter three. The talk about re-birth confronts the old man with the subject of birth that would traditionally rather be expected in the context of womenís talk. As I have shown elsewhere, Nicodemus is also interfigurally related to the Synoptic Mary, mother of Jesus, in particular as she is portrayed in the Lukan infancy narratives. Through such interfigural readings, a Nicodemus emerges who is characterized in both male and female terms. Thus, while I applied gender as an analytical category, gender boundaries began to shift, and the construction of gender becomes an issue of de-construction. "Queering Nicodemus" might be the topic of my next paper.

For sure, the readings presented here are not a must. However, opening the Fourfold Gospel and reading the Gospel of John, with the richness of new methods available to us, interfigural readings can provide a challenging new way of responding creatively to a creative writer. At the same time, text dimensions become visible that might have gone unnoticed otherwise. This, in turn, can shed new light also on the historical question of whether John knew the Synoptics or not. I believe s/he did. And so did part of the Johannine community.

"At the Crossroads She Takes Her Stand" or, Where Can Wisdom Be Found?"

"At the crossroads she takes her stand". Thus, the Book of Proverbs (8:2) defines the location of Lady Wisdom, who "cries out in the streets; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out" (Prov 1:20-21). For sure, one of the busiest corners in New Testament biblical criticism has been the crossroads between John and the Synoptics. Whether wisdom can be found in my interfigural readings is up to you to judge. However, whether you embrace them or not, be sure that I donít regard you as the "simple ones" whom Wisdom advices to "learn prudence; acquire intelligence, you who lack it" (Prov 8:5). On the other hand, I am not so sure as Lady Wisdom was, who trusted she spoke noble things and from her lips came what is right (Prov 8:6-7). The readings presented here are one of many possible readings. However, I trust they are readings that open up new possibilities not only with regard to re-viewing the relationship between John and the Synoptics but also with regard to the re-construction, and perhaps de-construction, of gender and the transcendence of gender boundaries, in biblical texts and in our world in front of the texts.

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[Copyright 2001, by Ingrid Rosa Kitzberger.  All rights reserved. This is a draft version of a work still in progress; please do not copy or cite anything from this paper without explicit permission of the author.]

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