New College, University of Edinburgh

J. Louis Martyn: Fifty Years On—A ‘Two-Level Drama’ of Scriptural Interpretation in John 9

  1. J. Louis Martyn and Two-Level Drama in the Gospel of John


The Society of Biblical Literature’s Annual Meeting always offers a whirlwind of sessions catering to every niche of biblical scholarship. Yet sometimes the most enlightening are those taking the pulse of current conversation in the tried-and-true subject areas. I benefited from just such a session in the Johannine Literature group, as this year marked the fiftieth anniversary of J. Louis Martyn’s seminal History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel. This watershed publication was commemorated by Craig Koester, R. Alan Culpepper, Adele Reinhartz, and M. C. de Boer. Martyn’s contribution was further explored in a session featuring fresh readings of John 9 informed by his essential work on the compelling pericope. I found myself inspired by such a significant landmark in the Johannine conversation to contribute my own perspective on this memorable microcosm of post-Martyn discussion. With a wink and a nod to Martyn’s famous ‘two-level drama’, interweaving the gospel’s story of Jesus with the story of the ‘Johannine community’ that produced it, I propose here my take on a different kind of dual-level dynamic: a ‘two-level drama’ of scriptural interpretation.


  1. A Two-Level Drama of Scriptural Interpretation in John 9


Though lacking explicit reference to ἡ γραφή (‘the Scripture’) or a direct citation thereof, Scripture’s looming presence in the pericope can be nonetheless delineated via a dual-level dynamic between emplotted and compositional roles for scriptural interpretation. On the first level, Scripture functions within the narrative by motivating the plot’s central conflict over scriptural interpretation. On the second level, scriptural allusion resolves this emplotted tension between characters with the author’s own scriptural interpretation compositionally crafted into the passage itself. This twist on a ‘two-level drama’ in John 9 develops through a three-act sequence: Act One (vv. 1-7), Act Two (vv. 8-34), and Act Three (vv. 35-41).[1]


Act One (vv. 1-7)


The emplotted dimension of Scripture’s function frames the narrative with two key features. First, light imagery depicting Jesus as ‘revelation’ and sight/blindness imagery representing believing and unbelieving responses to revelation set the stage with scriptural allusion to Isaianic quotations addressing spiritual blindness to revelation in John 12:37-41 (Isaiah 53:1, 6:10). On this backdrop, the disciples’ enquiry into the cause of the blind man’s condition (“who sinned?”, v. 2) introduces the second key feature delineating Scripture’s in-narrative role: identifying the ‘sinner’ as the one who has transgressed the Law. Jesus’ response redirects this question to his work as revelatory light, which alone can remedy the condition of spiritual blindness: “It was not that this man sinned…but that the works of God might be made manifest in him…I am the light of the world” (vv. 3-5). A tension between Jesus as revelation and interpretation of the Law in light of this revelation is thus sparked in the opening exchange. The ensuing healing (vv. 6-7) invites in Act Two not only the attention of the man’s community (vv. 8-12) but more importantly that of Jesus’ recurring opponents in the Gospel of John: the Jewish authorities (vv. 13-24). In these unfolding interactions, Scripture’s motivation of intra-character conflict grows even more conspicuous.


Act Two (vv. 8-34)


Act Two focusses further on identifying the ‘sinner’, narrowing the first act’s revelatory symbolism to Scripture’s emplotted role in dispute over transgression of the Law. Jesus’ conspicuous absence in these verses foregrounds the language of Sabbath controversy (vv. 14, 16) and invocation of Moses (vv. 28-29) that echoes prior encounters (esp. 5:1-47). The conflict is thereby cast in terms of the Jewish authorities’ claim to interpret Scripture in the form of the Law.[2] The once-blind man (vv. 13-17, 24-34), as well as his parents (vv. 18-23), are interrogated in the authorities’ desperate endeavour to condemn Jesus a sinner (vv. 16, 24).[3] Invoking Moses to this end, however, ironically proves their undoing: “…we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from” (vv. 28-29). Doggedly clinging to misinterpretation of Moses’ testimony in Scripture, upon which their hopes are set and by which they will be judged (5:45-47), they fail to recognize Scripture’s continuity with the one of whom Moses wrote (5:46, cf. 1:45). Scripture’s function in the plot is thus made explicit in the Jewish authorities’ ultimate failure as scriptural interpreters. They are unable to ‘see’ the continuity between Jesus as revelation and the Law as ‘scriptural revelation’. Their exasperated dismissal of the once-blind man in v. 34 then leads into the author’s clever subversion of his characters’ misinterpretation of Scripture with his own proper interpretation of Isaiah in the pericope’s closing act.


Act Three (vv. 35-41)


Act Three climactically culminates my proposed two-level drama by shifting Scripture’s role from the ‘emplotted’ level to the ‘compositional’ level. This final act mirrors the first by highlighting the symbolic language of believing sight and unbelieving blindness with even more pronounced allusion to the imminent Isaianic citations of 12:37-41: sight (ὁράω, 9:37; 12:40 / βλέπω 9:39, 41 / ὀφθαλμός, 12:40), blindness (τυφλός, 9:39-41 / τυφλόω, 12:40), and belief (πιστεύω, 9:35-36, 38; 12:37, 38, 39).[4] These striking parallels betray the deliberate hand of the Johannine author, who artfully resolves the debate between his characters with a display of compositional prowess. The second act abruptly halts unresolved in v. 34 with the religious authorities thwarted in their attempt to condemn Jesus a sinner via misinterpretation of Scripture. Jesus’ closing address then admonishes the once-blind man to believe in the one he has seen (vv. 35-39), while condemning his opponents as those who claim to see but are actually blind (vv. 39-41). Jesus has appeared in this passage as revelatory light, but those blinded by unbelief from seeing his continuity with scriptural revelation are cleverly used to illustrate the author’s own scriptural interpretation of Isaiah: “Though he had done so many signs before them, yet they did not believe in him…For again Isaiah said, ‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and perceive with their heart’” (12:37-40). Through Isaianic allusion to Isaianic citation, Scripture’s compositional function further manifests a ‘two-level drama’ of the Johannine use of Scripture in this quintessential text.


III. ‘Emplotted’ and ‘Compositional’ Levels in the Johannine Use of Scripture


What does this two-level drama of scriptural interpretation in John 9 ultimately demonstrate? Interestingly, the pericope’s conclusion does not resolve as would perhaps be expected. Though Jesus has previously countered the Jewish authorities on their invocation of Moses and his writings, he does not do so here. Rather, the conflict shifts entirely from the points of reference thus far characterising the emplotted level of Scripture’s function. It is not via intra-character debate over familiar terms of Sabbath or Moses that the authorities’ misinterpretation of Scripture is subverted. Instead, the author contrasts his characters’ failure with his own successful appropriation of Scripture for composing the gospel itself. The emplotted role of Scripture is thus resolved in a way that highlights Scripture’s compositional use by the gospel author. My thanks are due to Martyn’s remarkable legacy for the helpful language of ‘two-level drama’, which I believe offers here new insights into the use of Scripture in John 9.


Written by Julia Lindenlaub University of Edinburgh



[1] Preference for this ‘three-act’ linear structure of heightening tension (rather than a chiastic structure) is persuasively advocated by Dorothy Lee in her analysis of this passage as a ‘symbolic narrative’: The Symbolic Narratives of the Fourth Gospel: The Interplay of Form and Meaning (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1994), 161-87.

[2] Martin Asiedu-Peprah designates the action of 9:1-41 as “the continuation and the development of the ongoing juridical controversy (5:1-47) between Jesus and his opponents on the issues of the Sabbath law and Jesus’ identity” (Johannine Sabbath Conflicts as Juridical Controversy, WUNT 2/132 [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001], 118-19). The abundant parallels between these two passages not only affirm the importance of scriptural interpretation in both, but also highlight the interesting divergence from intra-character resolution here in John 9. That Jesus does not explicitly address Scripture’s interpretation in 9:35-41 (contra 5:31-47) places center stage the author’s own ability to rightly interpret Scripture by alluding to Isaiah.

[3] Alicia Myers helpfully observes that in identifying Jesus as the sinner, the religious authorities implicitly conclude that he is “incompatible with Scripture” (Characterizing Jesus: A Rhetorical Analysis on the Fourth Gospel’s Use of Scripture in its Presentation of Jesus, LNTS 458 [London: T&T Clark, 2012], 151).

[4] Among a number of essays on the programmatic import of Isaiah for the Johannine author, Catrin Williams has recently discussed Isaianic themes of light, sight, and revelation in: “Johannine Christology and Prophetic Traditions: The Case of Isaiah,” in Reading the Gospel of John’s Christology as Jewish Messianism: Royal, Prophetic, and Divine Messiahs, ed. Benjamin E. Reynolds and Gabriele Boccaccini, AJEC 106 (Leiden: Brill, 2018), 92-123.

  • CSCO Team,
  • 7th January 2019


  • The Rev. David R. Graham, 22nd July 2020 at 11:09 pm | Reply

    I sat in Martyn’s NT classes in the late 60s. On “two-level drama” exegesis of John’s Gospel he lectured.

    It struck me then and still as key insight regarding which Dr. Martyn got the levels but not their terms correct, which lapse precluded accurate examination of their effects in soteriology and piety, the purpose of seminary learning.

    I think Dr. Martyn had half a loaf, without the yeast to make it rise, so to speak. What he had was true: two-level drama. What he did not have — simple and therefore articulation of the two levels — would have helped many, the most sincere of whom found it for themselves, at personal cost of being forced to countenance ecclesial and social drift.

    The levels intermix — weave in and about amongst each other, aggregate, sublimate, conjugate . . . whatever metaphor for dynamics that one prefers — as mediated experience (tangible, physical) and direct experience (intangible, spiritual), and ultimately they unite. Incarnation Doctrine (Johannine to the core) attests no less.

    These pietistical considerations may mean nothing or worse to contemporary scholars of biblical literature. I am retired now and raised my family on the earnings of a public transit operator (bus driver), which in USA are generous. I graduated Union in 1969 with the BD degree, since restyled, as you know, as MDiv. My career-wise inspiration was and is St. Paul and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: worker priest, so to speak.

  • Sebastian Samuel, 28th October 2021 at 9:14 am | Reply

    Very nice and informative article. LOVED the simple yet through writing. I too have just started a blog, and am awaiting nice comments. Thus, the Jesus of history must be divorced from the Christ of faith if one is to rescue Biblical.

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