The new book by Philip Esler and Ronald Piper prompted me to revisit Malina & Rohrbaugh’s commentary, which argues that the Johannine community was an “anti-society”, an alternative society consisting of exiles, rebels, or ostracized deviants. (Examples of such societies include reform-school students in Poland, members of the underworld in India, and vagabonds in Elizabethan England.) Like all anti-societies, the Johannine community had developed an “anti-language”, a resistance language used to maintain sharp sectarianism.
Anti-language, as Malina and Rohrbaugh explain, involves overlexicalized language, or redundant metaphors. “Believing into Jesus”, “abiding in him”, “loving him”, “keeping his word”, “receiving him”, “having him”, and “seeing him” all mean the same thing; just as “bread”, “light”, “door”, “life”, “way”, and “vine” are redundant metaphors for Jesus himself. The authors comment:
“The metaphor that constitutes anti-language is present in all language to some extent. Much of everyday language is in fact metaphorical; for example, horsepower in an automobile, a cell in biology, the conception of ideas, and the like. Yet the metaphorical quality of everyday language is frequently lost. People forget that a cell originally referred to the monastery room of a monk. By contrast, what distinguishes an antilanguage is that when it is compared with the existing language system of the culture in which it emerges (and the society against which it stands), it is clearly seen to be a metaphorical entity.” (Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, p 14)
John’s use of language is as radical as his co-optation of heroes and prototypes. If I could go back to the first century and spend time in only three Christian communities, the Johannine community would surely be one of them. What exactly did these people go through to cause them to withdraw from the world — “this world” — and hate it so much?