The midwife of truth: The nature of irony and a rationale for its prevalence in the Gospel of John
The Gospel of John is renowned for its pervasive use of irony. While this phenomenon is widely recognized by scholars, there have been only a few attempts to explain the “how” of Johannine irony and no meaningful attempt to explain its “why.” The last major treatment of the topic was by Paul Duke in his 1985 work, Irony in the Fourth Gospel, which provides an account of how Johannine irony works through an analysis of local and extended ironies. Other examinations, such as Gail O’Day’s Revelation in the Fourth Gospel in 1986, explore irony as a corollary of some other thematic concern. The reticence of scholars to delve deeper into the nature of Johannine irony is understandable given that as Duke puts it, irony laughs at all pretensions, especially the pretension of claiming to have grasped irony. This study undertakes the demanding but necessary task of describing irony to a level that allows meaningful engagement with ironic texts, while accepting that it remains ultimately indefinable. Particular attention is paid to historical shifts of understanding of the nature of irony and the implications this has for appreciating irony at a conceptual level. From a survey of the Johannine scholarship, a comprehensive but non-exhaustive overview of the Fourth Gospel’s use of irony is derived. No previous work has attempted to approach the subject in this way. The main advantage of doing so is that it allows for the identification of broad patterns of irony and the way it functions in the narrative. This in turn provides a framework for proceeding to an examination of particular texts and the identification of a possible rationale. The present study assesses several hypotheses to explain why the author of the Fourth Gospel makes such sustained use of irony. The preferred hypothesis is that it is intrinsically linked to a predominant Johannine theme of alētheia (truth). Drawing on the conceptual link between irony and truth, it argues that the truth theme is a deliberate literary strategy employed by the author to entice the reader to seek certain propositional truths within the narrative. This ultimately serves the author’s desire to evoke revelation and response in line with the Gospel’s purpose statement in 20:31. The argument that irony serves the Johannine truth theme is tested with particular reference to the Prologue (1:1-18) and the Passion Narrative (chapters 18-19). The study establishes that irony serves as the link between appearance and reality in the narrative. Its subtle and engaging qualities make irony the most suitable vehicle to testify to the Gospel’s propositional statements in a manner that fulfils the author’s stated Christological (a revelation of Jesus’ true identity) and soteriological (a response that leads to salvation) purposes.