Johannine Discipleship as a Covenant Relationship

By Rekha M. Chennattu
Peabody, Mass. : Hendrickson (2006). xxiv + 256 Pages.

Reviewed by Paul Thorsell
17.2 (Fall 2006) : 233-234

Rekha Chennattu’s Johannine Discipleship as a Covenant Relationship illustrates just how far contemporary Johannine scholarship has turned from Rudolf Bultmann’s Gnostic interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, which dominated so much of the twentieth century. Despite John’s omission of the Synoptic and Pauline words of Jesus inaugurating the new covenant, Chennattu paints the portrait of Johannine discipleship with the vivid colors of covenantal language and motifs drawn from the OT and second temple Judaism. Chennattu’s volume, originally written as a dissertation under Francis Moloney at the Catholic University of America, is a masterful defense of the thesis that Johannine discipleship must be read as Christian faithfulness to the new covenant relationship created by Jesus.

Chapter one begins with a survey of the scope of recent scholarship on Johannine discipleship from Moreno to Köstenberger before focusing on discipleship motifs in the three call-stories of John 1:35-51. Chennattu detects elements within these stories related to OT covenantal motifs. The invitation to “abide,” knowledge of Jesus, the call to witness, and the acts of renaming and promising are all viewed against an OT covenantal background. In chapters two and three, Chennattu examines significant motifs within the OT depiction of covenant (election, divine presence, knowledge of God, witness, peace, promises) before proceeding to read John 13–17 (1–12 is examined cursorily) against these motifs. She concludes that the farewell meal (John 13) is depicted as an OT covenant meal; the injunction to love functions as the new covenant commandment. John 14 expounds the presence and knowledge of Jesus/the Father through the Paraclete. “Abiding” in Jesus (15) is the equivalent of the OT demand for covenantal faithfulness. Jesus’ prayer (17) operates as the equivalent of a covenantal inauguration ritual. Chennattu instructively concludes, “The evangelist takes the OT covenant metaphor, redefines and broadens its prospect, and applies it to the relationship between God and the new covenant community of Jesus’ disciples” (139). Chennattu’s exposition of John 20–21 in chapter four provides an argument comparable to the previous chapters. Jesus’ actions reconstitute and empower the new-covenant community of His disciples. For instance, as Moses returned from the mountain with the tables of the Law, Jesus returns to His disciples with the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Chapter five is tangential to her argument, and probably the most problematic. Chennattu suggests that the Fourth Gospel reflects the Sitz im Leben of the Johannine community responding to its exclusion from post-destruction Judaism. In the aftermath of A.D. 70, according to Chennattu, Judaism utilizes the covenant metaphor to restore its self-identity (194) and excludes the Johannine community as covenant breakers. In reply, the community presents Christianity as the establishment of the new covenant relationship with God (as reflected by the Fourth Gospel). Chennattu’s scenario is plausible and certainly consistent with prevailing notions (following E. P. Sanders, et. al.) that first-century Judaism was a covenantal nomism. But the evidence she presents is hardly persuasive. The Qumran literature and Pseudo-Philo certainly cannot substantiate her thesis since they antedate the destruction. Fourth Ezra (as Sanders argued) is not representative of second temple Judaism and 2 Baruch’s close relationship to or dependence on 4 Ezra vitiates it as an independent witness. In the end, Chennattu fails to substantiate her hypothesis about the Johannine community.

The volume has a few oddities that editing could have remedied. In the tables on pages 42-43 and 150-51, some items have English only, some contain only the Greek text, some include English translation with the Greek text; consistency would have been helpful. W. R. G. Loader’s article on Johannine “Christology” is mistitled in the footnotes and bibliography. In my opinion, the chapter divisions are not helpful. Yet Johannine Discipleship as a Covenant Relationship is well worth the read. The observations and comparisons by which the author argues her thesis separately are interesting but unpersuasive. Cumulatively, however, they constitute a compelling argument that John (like Paul, Hebrews, and the Synoptic Gospels) presents Jesus as the inaugurator of the new covenant and Christians as those called to new covenant faithfulness.