Book Review, New Testament Studies

“Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel” by R. Alan Culpepper – A Book Review

Alan Culpepper’ Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel provides a seminal work on analyzing the narrative elements of the Fourth Gospel. Culpepper compares the literary features of secular literary criticism with John’s Gospel while also interacting with Johannine research. He employs the theoretical model from Seymore Chatman that focuses on the transmission of story from author to reader through three principles: (1) the narrator, (2) the story itself (with the components of narrative time, plot, characters, and implicit commentary), and (3) the reader or audience. After the introduction (ch. 1), chapter 2 concentrates on the narrator and point of view. Chapters 3–6 discuss each component of the story: narrative time (ch. 3), plot (ch. 4), characters (ch. 5), and implicit commentary (ch. 6). Chapter 7 is about the implied reader, and the last chapter serves as the conclusion (ch. 8). Overall, the goal of Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel is to offer a method for reading John’s Gospel more perceptively by looking at the features of literary analysis, which in turn leads to the collection of new data for Johannine studies.

Culpepper, R. Alan. Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983. xii + 266 pp.


Chapter 1 is the introduction, where Culpepper lays out the goal of the monograph and a summary of each chapter. Culpepper defends his method against possible objections regarding the legitimacy and appropriateness of applying studies on modern literature to an ancient text such as the Gospel of John. He argues that the Gospel of John is a work of art unlike any first century literature. He quotes C. S. Lewis, who implicitly admits to significant similarities between the gospels and modern narrative literature. Furthermore, narrative features can be observed and analyzed without assuming that the same categories were understood or consciously applied by an ancient writer.

In chapter 2, Culpepper analyzes the narrator. He distinguishes the real author, implied author, and the narrator. The real author wrote the Gospel, and the narrator is the one who tells the story. The implied author is the reader’s impression of the real author, the literary artist behind the narrative. According to Culpepper, the implied author “is the sum of the choices made by the real author in writing the narrative” (p. 16). In John, the narrator is the voice of the implied author, who has an omniscient point of view. He knows and interprets Jesus’ thoughts (cf. John 4:1; 5:6; etc.), the thoughts of the disciples (cf. 4:27; 21:4), and the thoughts of other minor characters (4:53; 19:8; 19:38). The narrator is also omnipresent; he is present simultaneously in the courtyard where Peter denies Jesus and in the praetorium where Pilate questions Jesus. The temporal point of view of the narrator is retrospective. He speaks from some point in the future and interprets the narrative. For example, in several occasions the narrator comments that the disciples did not understand the significance of an event or speech until after Jesus’ death and resurrection (cf. John 12:16) The section ends with an analysis of the relationship between the narrator and the beloved disciple, concluding that the occurrence of the beloved disciple within the narrative was possibly inserted by a later editor.

The focus of chapter 3 is narrative time, which has three major components: order, duration, and frequency of events in the narrative. The narrative time may correspond more or less to the story time, but they are never equal. The sequence of events in the narrative may not be the same sequence of how the story is told (order), or some parts of the story may be told more quickly than others (duration). Regarding order of events, Culpepper introduces analepses and prolepses occurring in John’s Gospel. An analepsis refers to allusions to previous events, including pre-historical analepses, such as the relationship between the Father and the Son before creation (John 1:1). Prolepses, on the other hand, are anticipations of coming events. One example is Judas’ betrayal, mentioned as early as John 6, although the actual event did not take place until chapter 18. Regarding duration, various “speeds” of narrative can be detected. Dialogues in the narrative are almost in real time, while summaries speed up the story time. The story slows down whenever the narrator pauses for an extended description of setting, character, or emotion (cf. 5:2–5; 11:18–19).A significant slowing of pace takes place beginning in 12:37–50, where half of the entire Gospel (chapters 12–20) covers a 2-week period, with chapters 13–19 covering a 24-hour period. Lastly, frequency refers to events that happened once but are repeatedly mentioned by the narrator, events that happened repeatedly but are only mentioned once (indicated by iterative verbs), or events that happened repeatedly and are mentioned repeatedly. Repeated events in John include Jesus abiding in a certain region (cf. 1:39; 4:40; 11:6), some believing in Jesus (2:23; 7:31; 10:42; 11:45), Jesus performing signs (2:24; 6:2; 20:30), and religious leaders persecuting Jesus (5:16; 7:11; 11:57).

In chapter 4, Culpepper analyzes the plot in John. The features of a plot include sequence, causality, unity, and affective power. For Culpepper, plots require change in either the situation or the character’s condition, thoughts, or feelings. He cites John 1:11–12 as the summary of the Fourth Gospel’s plot, where some rejected Jesus, but those who received him were made children of God (p. 87). The majority of chapter 4 is Culpepper’s chapter-by-chapter summary of John’s Gospel, concluding that the Gospel of John’s plot centers around the conflict between belief and unbelief as a response to Jesus.

Chapter 5 concentrates on characters. Unlike novels, the characters in John are not given full-blown development; rather, they appear only to fulfill their role in relation to the protagonist, Jesus. The central figure in the narrative is Jesus, who is mentioned in every scene. In addition, the only static character is Jesus, while the rest of the characters undergo change as they respond to Jesus. Culpepper analyzes the characters in John, starting with Jesus and the Father, followed by the disciples. Other characters include the Jews, John the Baptist, Jesus’ mother, Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, the royal official, the lame man, the brothers of Jesus, the blind man, Lazarus and his sisters, Pilate, and Mary Magdalene.

Chapter 6 explores an overlooked literary feature: implicit commentary. A “silent” communication takes place between author and reader through misunderstandings, irony, and symbolism. Culpepper lists three instances where secondary characters repeatedly misunderstand Jesus:
(1) statements by Jesus that are ambiguous, metaphorical, or contain double entendre (cf. John 3:3); (2) someone responds to Jesus with a question or protest due to missing Jesus’ higher meaning (cf. John 2:20; 3:4); and (3) the narrator or Jesus offers further explanation (3:5–14; 11:49–52). The Gospel of John is replete with ironies. The man born blind eventually sees clearly, but the Pharisees remain blind in their sin (ch. 9). Judas arrests Jesus with an armed band, yet they remain powerless before Jesus (18:3–11). Pilate claims to have authority over Jesus, not realizing that Jesus has greater authority (19:10–11). The symbolism in John may be expressed through the “I am” metaphors, including the symbols of light, water, and bread.

The last literary feature is the implied reader, discussed in chapter 7. Culpepper attempts to identify John’s original readers by exploring what the narrator assumes the audience knows and what needs introduction or brief explanation. For example, Andrew was introduced as brother of Simon Peter even before Peter was introduced in the narrative. This suggests that the audience was familiar with Peter, but not with Andrew. Regarding language, the audience knows only Greek since terms such as “Rabbi” (1:38) and “Messiah” (1:41) need translation. Likewise, the names “Cephas” (1:42) and “Siloam” (9:7) were also unfamiliar to the audience. The audience, however, was familiar with Judaism and the OT Scripture. Moses (3:14), Elijah (1:21), and allusions to the law (1:17) were mentioned with no explanation (3:14; 1:21). Yet the phrase “Passover of the Jews” (2:13; 6:4; 11:55) suggests that the original audience was not Jewish. It is also unnecessary for a Jewish reader to know that Hanukkah took place in winter (10:22).

In the concluding chapter (ch. 8), Culpepper summarizes the narrative features discussed and appeals for the significance of the Gospel of John for the modern reader. Short of affirming inerrancy and authority of John’s Gospel, Culpepper attempts to remove the obstacle of a non-Christian’s view of Jesus by focusing not on the historicity of John’s narrative, but on the significance of the story narrated in John. Culpepper quotes Raymond Brown, “for a divinely inspired story is not necessarily history” (p. 236).


Culpepper has provided any reader of the Gospel of John a helpful tool in analyzing and understanding the John’s Gospel. Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel helps readers of John—or any narrative for that matter—to be conscious of narrative elements, which are clues from the narrator that guide the reader to the author’s purpose.

Perhaps the most helpful contribution in Anatomy are the various charts of certain literary features found in John. Culpepper provides a comprehensive list of the narrator’s “inside view” of Jesus mind (p. 22), the disciples’ minds (p. 23), Judas Iscariot’s mind (p. 23), and other characters’ minds (pp. 24–25). He also lists the narrator’s interpretation of Jesus’ words or significant terms (pp. 35, 39, 40), a chart on the sequence of the narrative compared with the sequence of the story (p. 55), analepses (pp. 59–61) and prolepses (pp. 62–67), parallels between the lame man in John 5 and the blind man in John 9 (pp. 139–140), misunderstandings in John (p. 161–162), unanswered questions in John, often based on a false assumption (p. 176), and ironic statements by characters (p. 177). In addition to these lists are exhaustive examples of literary features found in John.

Most works on narrative analysis pay attention to literary features such as plot, setting, characters, and narrator’s point of view. Culpepper, however, brings out two overlooked features: narrative time (chapter 3) and implicit commentary (chapter 6). Particularly helpful is to see how early in John the narrator employs suggestive prolepses of key events that will later take place. By paying attention to ironies, misunderstandings, and symbolism, the reader comes not only to a closer understanding to the point of the narrator, also to a greater appreciation of the author’s literary genius. These connections can be seen more fully when one reads and rereads John’s Gospel in one sitting.

Despite the helpful contributions toward a greater understanding of John’s Gospel, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel is not without weakness. In fact, it can be a danger to a naïve reader. On certain sections, questions concerning the Fourth Gospel’s authenticity, authorship, and authority are raised. Without mentioning his personal view on Johannine authorship, Culpepper remains open to a multiple author view (e.g., Johannine community authorship) and/or a redactor editing the work of John. The occurrence of “the beloved disciple” is one example where Culpepper suggests that it may be an insertion of an editor, instead of a “sophisticated ploy by an individual author” (p. 48). It is unclear whether Culpepper believes that John’s Gospel is historically accurate and authoritative. While this is not Culpepper’s concern, he gives credence to those who believe otherwise.

In addition, a danger also occurs when one becomes too obsessed with modern literary features to the point of seeking a parallel everywhere in the text. For example, Culpepper seems to read too much into the text by seeing symbolism in the smallest details (p. 198), including Jesus’ seamless robe (19:23) and the untorn net (21:11) as symbols of Jesus’ unity with the Father and his followers. He also suggests that the towel wrapped around Jesus (13:4) could be a point of meditation.

The beauty and literary genius of the Gospel of John should strengthen one’s view of inerrancy and authority, not dampen it. The irony is that Culpepper, who explored and carefully mined the wonderful literary features of John, was blind to see (or boldly affirm)the text’s authority and authenticity. Such a view comes, not by rigorous scholarly study of the text, but by the inner working of the same Spirit who wrote the text.


The Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel is an appropriate title for in this work, Culpepper draws attention to the small literary details that make up the whole Gospel of John. Any serious student of the Fourth Gospel who intends to do in-depth research will greatly benefit from this monograph. In fact, purchasing a copy of this work is profitable for the lists of literary features alone. Culpepper’s methodology is sound and thorough. Some conclusions, however, may be unsafe for a naïve reader. It is recommended for a reader to be familiar with the arguments of higher criticism with an evangelical evaluation before working his way through Culpepper’s Anatomy. This will serve the reader with the necessary background to identify some assumptions and arguments implicit in some of Culpepper’s analysis, especially regarding the authorship and authenticity of John’s Gospel.

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