Despite being written thousands of years ago, there are still new subtleties to be derived from the study of ancient Jewish and Christian sources. Caitlin Ganter spoke to Dr Ruth Sheridan who is reading the scripture in a new light.
When a text is as old as the Gospel of John, one might think the entire tale has been told. Yet ACU Adjunct Research Fellow Dr Ruth Sheridan has examined the scriptural citations in the Gospel of John and made some interesting conclusions.
Her book Retelling Scripture: The Jews and the Scriptural Citations in John 1:19-12:15 is an expansion on the Doctor of Philosophy degree she completed at ACU in 2011.
“A lot of the previous literature on the subject looked at the Gospel author’s method of citation, or tried to determine the textual form of the citations, for example which precise text from the Old Testament was the author relying on,” said Dr Sheridan.
“One of the main objectives of my research was to understand the extent to which the Gospel author deviated, if at all, from his source texts and then to make judgments about that deviation. Usually the conclusions tended in the direction of saying something about the Gospel’s Christology – its theological ideas about Jesus.
“My thesis took into account all of that research, but brought a different methodological focus to the problem. I wanted to see what rhetorical function the scriptural citations had at the level of the Gospel narrative, particularly how they worked to shape the characterisation of the speaker and listeners in the narrative of the Gospel.
“I began to notice that there were certain patterns at work in this: a character group bluntly called ‘the Jews’, were the audience for most of the citations in chapters 1 to 12, and these citations carried their own unique introductory formula.
“I built on other research to argue the citations functioned to negatively characterise ‘the Jews’ and to implicitly encourage an ‘ideal reader’ of the Gospel to do the same.
My research interest was squarely on the issue the anti-Judaism of the Gospel. I wanted to see how the Gospel’s scriptural hermeneutic tied in with this issue, and it opened up to an oft-noted paradox in the research, that the Gospel appears both very ‘Jewish’ and at the same time, most ‘anti-Jewish’.
“However, this is a bit of an uneven paradox, so my further research will look into demonstrating how the negative connotations associated with the character group ‘the Jews’ in the Gospel outweigh the positive ones, not just statistically, but in the intensity of their vituperative rhetoric and what implications this has for how scholars perform historiographical research on the Gospel community.”
The research is innovative, and Dr Sheridan won the prestigious 2013 Manfred Lautenshlaeger Award for Theological Promise (formerly called the John Templeton Award) for her book. The international award is made for the best first book published by the winning candidate after they receive their doctorate and before they turn 35-years-old.
Dr Sheridan is only the second Australian to win the highly coveted award.
“When I found out it felt weird, and then, when I got used to the idea, really incredible. At first I thought someone was playing a trick on me... it’s just one of those things that no sensible person ever expects to win – it’s just so ridiculously competitive. So when I got the email I actually couldn’t believe it.
“It was all the more wonderful because when I wrote the thesis, I was in a really unique space. I’d just given birth to my first son and balanced writing with caring for my new baby. Being a mother helped me to break through all barriers of procrastination and doubt, and enabled me just to do the thesis without any concern for whether I passed or failed, or whether or not it was good.
“Sometimes working in the Australia-Pacific region can feel isolating. I really felt that cultural difference in the US last year at a conference where one could sense the notion that status attaches to geography or a particular college. But winning the award helped me to believe in myself a bit more despite those superficial issues.”
With one largely successful publication behind her, Dr Sheridan continues to keep busy and has many new projects in the works.
“I am currently working as a post-doctoral research fellow at Charles Sturt University, which has been an absolutely wonderful job. Two articles, both on the Gospel of John and anti-Judaism, will appear this year as a result of this funding,” she said.
“I am also writing another book on the Gospel of John and intertextuality for T & T Clark/Bloomsbury, and that should be done by the middle of next year, as well as working on other projects. I do keep busy, but also try to keep sane, and not cave to the ‘publish-or-perish’ mentality. After all, as someone told me, writing is not about being a machine, and I think my best writing comes from a patient place.”