Flesh and Glory

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Flesh and Glory

Symbolism, Gender, and Theology in the Gospel of John

A vision of the Gospel of John that comprehends the organic wholeness of the ancient text and revivifies its powerful message of inspiration. Lee’s feminist interpretation awakens the meaning of complex and evocative symbols that illuminate the story of Jesus.

Topics include:

  • Restoring glory: The symbol of Jesus's flesh
  • Quenching thirst: The symbol of living water
  • Abiding on the vine: Symbols of love and friendship
  • Authoring life: The symbol of God as father
  • Giving birth to believers: Symbols of motherhood
  • Walking in darkness: Symbols of sin and evil
  • Costly self-giving: The symbol of annointing
  • Resurrection and life: Symbols of Easter
Reviews and endorsements

"In this book, Dorothy Lee, professor of NT [New Testament] studies at Queen's College, Melbourne, Australia, continues her exquisite symbolic reading of the Gospel of John published in previous articles and especially in her 1994 study, The Symbolic Narratives of the Fourth Gospel: The Interplay of Form and Meaning . . . This work, Flesh and Glory, goes to the very 'heart of the [Johannine] matter,' namely, the intricate and dynamic symbolism in the Gospel conveying the interplay between the human, fleshly existence of Jesus and his embodiment and mediation of divine glory. Having studied and taught the Gospel of John for the past twenty-five years, I will say that I have never read a more insightful and convincing exposition of the symbolic dimension of this extraordinary Gospel.

Building on earlier studies of Johannine symbolism (e.g., Craig Koester, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel . . . ), Lee begins her study by rearticulating the necessity of attending to the symbolic dimension in John and to the many ways in which the Johannine symbols engage the reader, both the implied reader within the text and contemporary readers. She sees this symbolism at work in rich and various ways—through metaphor, simile, scriptural allusion, and 'verbal icon' (p. 21)—and she devotes the first chapter to exploring the meaning(s) of symbols in the Fourth Gospel. In her reading, 'symbols are efficacious and luminous yet also give rise to a kind of humility of the senses, taking us to the edges of a reality that is beyond the power of expression' (p. 28).

Then, in eight successive chapters she explores and excavates what she names as the core symbols of the Gospel: Jesus' flesh, living water, symbols of love and friendship, fatherhood, maternal and birthing symbolism, darkness and symbols of sin/evil, anointing, and finally, Easter symbolism. Some of these symbols permeate the whole of the Gospel and become the richer by their repetition and intratextuality, such as the first and most important symbol, Jesus' flesh. Other symbols are more concentrated within particular texts or sections of the Gospel, such as the Easter symbolism (John 20). But even with this symbol, Lee draws out its intricate interconnection with earlier and later parts of the Gospel, yielding an expansive meaning not often noted. It would be impossible to summarize the wealth of insight, subtlety, and wisdom these chapters contain. Time and again, I found myself amazed by Lee's ability to see 'obvious' connections and levels of meaning in the text where I had missed them for so long!

Lee's reading of John 12 and the anointing of Jesus is a case in point. She first explores the many-layered meanings of the symbol of anointing in antiquity and then proceeds to unearth the undertones and overtones of this 'verbal icon.' Many before Lee have commented on the prolepsis in John 11:2 that introduces Mary by reference to what she will do in the following chapter; but Lee's analysis goes much further and argues for the complete narrative unity of John 11 and 12, developed in a series of seven scenes, the central scene being the raising of Lazarus (John 11:38-44). This structure, moreover, creates a textual interplay between Martha's dialogue with Jesus (11:17-27) and Mary's anointing at the supper (12:1-8), yielding a rich comparison between Martha and Mary, Mary and Caiaphas, Mary and Judas, Mary and Jesus' action in the foot washing, and even Mary and Nicodemus, who will come to anoint the body of Jesus at the time of his burial. In this symbol of anointing, she sees paternal and maternal love, desire and intimacy, an undeniable 'confirmation of the incarnation and the sanctity of the flesh' (p. 210).

No book is without its shortcomings. Some readers will wish Lee had attended more carefully to the different 'kinds' of modern readers suggested . . . Others will find too naïve Lee's theological treatment of sin and Johannine 'darkness' and her rejection of feminist critiques of masculine constructions of sinfulness (p. 191). Social-scientific critics will no doubt look for greater precision and nuance in the discussion of Johannine doxa in the context of a culture of honor and shame; and I am still not convinced that the 'husbands' in John 4 should not be read symbolically in light of 2 Kings 17, as Lee contends (p. 175). However, these are all lesser matters and detract in no way from Lee's sophisticated and beautifully written exposition of Johannine symbolism."
Barbara E. Bowe, R.S.C.J., Catholic Theological Union

Paperback / 296 pages
Dimensions: 6.02 x 9.24