BMCR 2021.01.08

The fourth Gospel and the manufacture of minds in ancient historiography, biography, romance, and drama

, The fourth Gospel and the manufacture of minds in ancient historiography, biography, romance, and drama. Biblical interpretation series. volume 173. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2019. Pp. xiv, 303. ISBN 9789004396036 €116,00.


Two areas of study among Johannine scholars receiving recent interest include the genre(s) of the Gospel and the characterization techniques of the narrator. In The fourth Gospel and the manufacture of minds, Smith isolates one aspect of characterization—the minds of characters—to investigate what this feature reveals about the genre of the text. To do so, the author evaluates examples of characters in four genres influential in the period of the Gospel’s composition: historiography, biography, romance, and drama, with examples drawn from both classical and Hellenistic sources; some Greek, and some Jewish. In a narrative like John, genre and characterization are intimately intertwined in that “genres condition the historical production and reception of texts, and so to misapprehend the genre is to start off on the wrong foot,” while characterization via “historically-sensitive interpretations of characters are bound up with assumptions about psychology and anthropology in the text’s social context” (p. 249). The book is a revision of the author’s 2016 Ph.D. dissertation from Yale University completed under the advisorship of Harold W. Attridge.

After a brief introduction, the book opens with an introductory chapter meant to introduce the role of genres (largely following a categorization model of genre) and how they shape and contribute to the reading of texts—especially the “minds” in texts (such as characters and narrators). Here Smith means “minds” as the literary construction of a character or narrator’s way of thinking or psychological makeup. Smith illustrates with the example of the detective story: Readers read a detective story as such not because the story features a detective, but because the narrator shows the readers the mind of the detective looking for clues, finding evidence, solving riddles, and planning the capture of the guilty. The focus on minds brings the work within the purview of cognitive narratology, although the book only lightly uses a narratological framework; most of the method for the study comes from a close reading of ancient texts coupled with a nod to the ancient Greek rhetorical and literary treatises and progymnasmata. Smith’s concern is not with finding thegenre of John, but with the ecologies of genre that led to the creation of a complex text such as the Fourth Gospel.

Chapters two through five survey respectively four of the most significant genre ecologies from the ancient world. Smith starts with historiography, noting that this is not a genre that scholars often compare with the Fourth Gospel. The author uses the minds within Polybius’ Histories and Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities to show that, unlike modern history, ancient historiographers frequently leaned into the minds of their characters in order to show and tell how big events happened, especially in conjunction with the stories of groups, tribes, and nations. In chapter three, Smith turns to ancient biography (βίος) and evaluates minds primarily in Plutarch’s Life of Solon and Philo’s Life of Moses. Of all four genres under study, ancient biography is the one scholars most associate with the Fourth Gospel. In these two sample texts, ancient biographers animated their character’s minds out of an interest in morality and virtue development (ἦθος) for their readers. Hellenistic-era romance stories are the next type of text under scrutiny in chapter four, where Smith reads the minds within Chariton’s Callirhoe and the anonymous Alexandrian novel Aseneth. Much like historiography, romance is a genre that scholars have infrequently associated with the Gospel of John. Smith argues that minds in these ancient novels are preoccupied with the twists and turns of the plot; sometimes aware and sometimes unaware of events in such a way that the narrator can bring the story to climax. Chapter Five evaluates minds in the final genre, drama. Here Smith reads Euripides’ Hippolytus and Ezekiel the Tragedian’s Exagoge to discover that dramatic minds—because there is no narrator in drama—engage in more ‘telling,’ either through a god who pronounces or a character who speaks to the audience in either monologues or dialogues. Similar to romance, dramatic minds also help their stories to succeed with “discrepant awareness” (p. 190), or the awareness by the audience to events that not all characters are privy to, which allows for a grand recognition close to the climax.

The final chapter and epilogue wrap up Smith’s thoughts about how each of these four types of texts contribute to characterization techniques that inform the fertile genre ecology of John. The author reiterates his warning that underlies reading artificial ancient minds in light of our own modern minds—one cannot assume that because they are ancient, that they are strikingly different, nor for that matter, familiarly the same. As Smith concludes, John is ultimately an “innovative text,” that builds upon, and transforms, each of the four classic genres.

Smith’s goals in this work are modest. He takes a straightforward approach to the issue at hand—how these four genres contour the thoughts of their characters—and devotes most of his time to helping the reader understand these influences. Although one could quibble that Smith submerges his theoretical commitments in the area of genre, narratology, and the psychology of reading minds in texts (for example, traditional/categorical genre studies versus rhetorical genre studies, the influence of semiotician A. J. Greimas), he more than adequately guides the reader through the ecological possibilities with little partisanship. To the author’s credit, the premise of the work is subtle, the craft of writing is high, and the argumentation is appropriately nuanced.

Perhaps the greatest weakness in the work is the absence of other genres that may be equally illuminating. For example, while Smith does Johannine studies a favor by drawing attention to the influence of Greek historiography, drama, and romance on the Gospel, he omits one genre brimming with characters whose minds may be as close to John as the studied four—Second Temple Jewish legends, notably Tobit and Judith (though Smith calls this an “artificial category,” p. 156). Although Smith well demonstrates that the author of John felt the influence of characterization from, say, the Greek Callirhoe, it is at least as likely that the author of John felt the influence of characterization from, say, the Jewish Judith. Given Smith’s yeoman’s work in this volume, we may hope that he will address this lacuna in future scholarship.

In sum, The fourth Gospel and the manufacture of minds is a rewarding reference volume for the scholar who wishes to dig deeper into the creation of the Johannine story or who wants to learn more about character building in first-century Hellenistic texts. I highly recommend this volume for any serious student of John’s Gospel.