Dining with John: Communal Meals and Identity Formation in the Fourth Gospel and its Historical and Cultural Context. By Esther Kobel. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2011. Pp. xx + 370. Cloth, $176.00.
In Dining with John, Esther Kobel, at the University of Basel, is interested in the role communal meals played in the experience of the earliest Christ-followers and the ‘historical’ Johannine community. To uncover this role, she pays particular attention to the rhetorical function of food, drink, and meals in the Gospel of John and offers an imaginative context, informed by the concept of hybridity, by allowing the text to function as an indicator of a plausible Sitz im Leben that arises from key discursive pointers in John’s Gospel. Koebel’s socio-rhetorical approach, as practiced by Vernon Robbins, recognizes the way these discourses mutually inform one another and, more importantly, draws from both the Jewish and non-Jewish context and cultural codes. After an introduction and a state of the question, the study is broken into two parts: the first pays close attention to metaphorical use of food and drink in the Fourth Gospel, while the second brings to the fore selected themes from the narrative world of the Gospel that were likely important to the negotiation of the group’s identity.
A central premise for Koebel is that the Johannine community’s regular meals had a deeper significance than just bodily sustenance. Chapter 1 provides the reader with her understanding of the foundational issues. Her assumption concerning the Gospel is that it “was written for and directed to a specific section of the Christ-movement, a ‘textual community’ which I will call the ‘Johannine community,’” though this should not be construed to provide “a direct window into a historical Johannine community.” Rather it describes a “context” a “living environment” and “practices of the Gospel’s addressees and/or authors” (33). She follows what has come to be the dominant social-scientific approach to understanding identity (Tajfel, Turner, Jenkins, and Hall). Chapter 2 surveys the existing scholarship dealing with the sociological perspective on meals within the broader field of biblical studies and the Fourth Gospel specifically.
Chapter 3 overviews the narrative structure of the Fourth Gospel and the way meal scenes, food, and drink emerge throughout. She makes a strong case for the centrality of meal settings and their associated discourses as an interpretive key for the Gospel of John (especially in comparison to the Synoptic tradition). The primary and oft repeated point is that Jesus provides food for his believers, and those who accept this food and partake of him/it show themselves to be his followers and make concrete their Christian identity (at least in its embryonic form). The meal scenes in John 6 and 13–17 provide the pivot points for the entire Gospel, the first with regard to the significant reduction in participants as the story continues, and the second (with the removal of the betrayer) as the occasion for the formation of the ingroup, “the true community that is marked by mutual indwelling of the disciples with Jesus even after his death” (107).
The strength of this study emerges in the socio-rhetorical intertextures evident in part 2. Chapter 4 sets a clear context for the way meals form identity; this chapter alone makes a significant contribution to NT studies. Chapter 5 studies the eucharistic discourse in John 6 and the way footwashing decenters it. Chapter 6 surveys the way non-Jewish (and non-Christian) discourses influenced meal practices. Kobel is particularly interested in the framework mystery cults may provide for understanding John 6:51-58, described as a “Jesusphagy/Christophagy” (247). If some of the members of the Johannine community were former participants in the Dionysian tradition, then eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood would have been particularly allusive. Chapter 7 reads the same pericope in the context of accusations of cannibalism. She sees this practice in the light of Greek and Roman groups who bound themselves together by eating flesh and drinking blood. This is not meant to imply this was actually occurring but that those who might have come from this background needed to be reassured that “chew[ing] on the flesh of Jesus” was an acceptable way to “continue bonding around their leader” (270). Chapter 8 addresses the betrayal meal scene and places the context in the reoccurring Roman persecutions of voluntary associations. The Christ-believers might have been afraid that some of the Jews would betray them to the Romans. If the earliest Christ-movement was seen as a type of voluntary association, this could provide a plausible context for fearing the Jews, since the Romans relied on betrayal by an insider for their prosecution of group members (292).
Chapter 9 provides a summary and is followed by an appendix on Jesus’ avoidance of food in the Gospel of John. Kobel notes that the interpretive pluralism that her study reinforces should not deflate contemporary interpreters but should be an encouragement that this Gospel is a fine example of cross-cultural communication and one that could be understood by both those from a Jewish and a non-Jewish background. Kobel is quite convincing with regard to her claim that the meal accounts are central to the Gospel’s rhetorical purpose to create belief in Jesus and to form a distinct social identity within his followers. While one could quibble with some of the exegetical choices made in this work or whether meals have this type of identity-forming power, it stands out as an excellent example of the way social scientific criticism (here in its socio-rhetorical guise) provides fresh insights into several long-standing debates within NT studies.