“Discontinuous Dialogue” in John 18 and 19: An Expansion upon the Observations of A. D. Nuttall

This paper explicates the rhetorical effect of the “discontinuous dialogues” of Pilate and Jesus in John 18:33-38a and 19:9-11, demonstrating their impact on the comparative characterizations of Pilate and Jesus as well as the solution of the rhetorical problem of the passion narrative.
Although many note that Jesus does not give straight answers to Pilate in John’s account of the Roman interrogations, Johannine scholars have either overlooked or misapplied A. D. Nuttall’s observation and analysis of the first of these conversations as a specimen of discontinuous dialogue. This paper will highlight Nuttall’s contribution from his 1980 book Overheard by God: Fiction and Prayer in Herbert, Milton, Dante and St John. It will also chart out and explain the discontinuities well beyond Nuttall’s work—-which only treats 18:33-38a and does not chart it out. The intent is to garner greater recognition and appreciation for this literary structure among Johannine scholars. The paper will expand upon Nuttall regarding the impact the discontinuity of the dialogues has on the characterizations of Pilate and Jesus—-that is, elevating Jesus and denigrating Pilate. It will also demonstrate how this contributes to the solution of the rhetorical problem of the Johannine passion narrative, namely, how can the exalted Protagonist Jesus be handed over for crucifixion by the ruling Roman authority without appearing criminal or at least weak or vanquished?
Despite Pilate’s position as the prefect of Judea with authority to pronounce capital sentences and the status of Jesus as the accused who is at risk of such a sentence, John employs various narrative means to depict Pilate as weak and ineffectual and Jesus as transcendent and in control of his destiny. Key among these narrative features is the structure and content of the dialogues, which show Pilate to be earthbound (“from here”), political, obtuse, befuddled, and dominated, whereas Jesus is transcendent (“from above”), spiritual, piercing, serene, and purposeful. Jesus answers Pilate’s question with a challenging question, refuses to answer his question, silently embodies the answer to Pilate’s dismissive question, and answers previous questions in discontinuous and spiritually transcendent ways that Pilate fails to grasp. These features of their dialogue show how the defendant Jesus gains the upper hand and baffles and frustrates Pilate. In summary, for the implied reader of the text, their dialogues expose Pilate as an impotent potentate while Jesus shines forth as the Truth, the King, the Judge, and the Son of God.
In addition to citations of dozens of major commentaries and monographs on John, the paper will especially engage Johannine scholars working from a narrative-critical approach (such as Alan Culpepper, Paul Duke, Cornelis Bennema, and Francois Tolmie) and will counter some of the interpretations by Mark Stibbe, Christopher Tuckett, Douglas Estes, Christopher Land, and Mavis Leung.

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