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Violence as Sign in the Fourth Gospel

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image of Biblical Interpretation

The Gospel of John twins the history of Jesus' body with the history of the temple. On John's telling, intersections of those two violent histories are multiple. In the fourth Gospel, the violence directed against Jesus' body that unfolds in the passion narrative is catalyzed (on a narrative level) by Jesus' own physically enacted violence at the temple site. Jesus' action at the temple, his use of a whip to drive out his fellow Jews, is a form of symbolic communication. Jesus' appearance in the temple, whip in hand, functions as a violent epiphany, a moment of self-revelation akin to his self-revelation at Cana. Recognition of the temple incident as sign forces us to consider what, precisely, Jesus reveals about himself when he picks up a whip to clear men and goods from the space he calls his Father's house. As Roger Friedland and Richard D. Hecht argue, "Violence is a form of communication…. Symbolic violence, profanation, is used by members of one community… in order to mobilize their own communities, to make their definition of reality the dominant one…. By profaning the other's sacred place you make the other profane, an alien with no claim to possession of that space." By encoding violence as sign the Gospel of John not only records the history of violence but becomes an episode in that history.

Affiliations: 1: University of Richmond


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