The Rough Wordsmith
- Tuesday, November 19, 2013
Third-century church leader Dionysius of Alexandria said that the Apostle John’s “dialect and language are not accurate Greek, but… he uses barbarous idioms, and, in some places, solecisms.”1 Since then, commentators have noted that John is neither as eloquent a wordsmith as Luke, nor as polished a debater as Paul. He speaks slowly and uses small words—with a thick accent.
Yet John is a genre-buster. Matthew, Mark, and Luke wrote only historical narratives; Peter, Paul, James, and Jude wrote only epistles; the author of Hebrews wrote only, well, Hebrews. John, despite his “barbarous idioms,” quirky grammar, and limited vocabulary, managed to produce not only a gospel but three epistles and an apocalypse. Mastering one literary genre is impressive enough, but John’s body of work spans three. And he wrote all of this in his non-native tongue.
Ironically, the power of language is a major theme in John’s writing. He is very careful about stating his intent. “Now Jesus did many other signs… which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe” (John 20:30–31). John also states his intent in 1 John 1:8–10, naming each part of his audience and his reasons for writing to them. The Revelation is written “to show his servants the things that must soon take place” so that they can “keep what is written in it, for the time is near” (Rev 1:1, 3). John knows his words will affect his audience, and he wants them to have the right effect.
In John’s gospel, speech is often associated with “bearing witness” that leads to either belief or unbelief (1:7, 2:22; 3:12). Unlike Nicodemus, who struggles with Jesus’ words (3:11–12), the Samaritan woman at the well believes because of what Jesus tells her, and her town in turn believes because of what she tells them (4:29, 42). Later, the crowds abandon Jesus—not because of anything he has done, but because of his “hard saying” (6:60). Peter, in contrast, refuses to leave because Jesus has “the words of eternal life” (6:68).
Solecisms are mistakes in the use of language.
It comes from the Greek word σόλοικος (soloikos), meaning “speaking incorrectly, using broken Greek.”
Genres divide literature into categories with common conventions that set audience expectations.
Broadly speaking, the genres of the New Testament are: gospel/history (Matthew-Acts) epistle (Romans-3 John), and apocalypse (Revelation).
For John, the faith of those who believe the words of Jesus is stronger than those who demand tangible proof. “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe” (John 4:48; compare 7:31; 14:10–11). This point is illustrated by Thomas’ doubt (John 20:24–29). The Jewish authorities, however, did not believe even after hearing and seeing (10:25–26).
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