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Spring 2000 · Vol. 29 No. 1 · pp. 83–84 

Book Review

John the Baptist in Life and Death: Audience-Oriented Criticism of Matthew's Narrative

Gary Yamasaki. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic, 1998. 176 pages.

Reviewed by Devon H. Wiens

This work by Gary Yamasaki, who teaches at Columbia Bible College in Abbotsford, British Columbia, is a revision of his 1995 dissertation presented to Union Theological Seminary in Virginia. It is a slim volume though outrageously priced ($57.50), as monographs tend to be, and, as such, is addressed to a scholarly clientele.

Its virtuous quality is that it represents a consistent application of what Yamasaki terms a dynamic, formalist type of audience-oriented criticism to the figure of John the Baptist in Matthew’s Gospel. He distinguishes his method both from narrative criticism and reader-response criticism.

Yet here a confusion of categories seems to result. Whereas Yamasaki states that he is not concerned with authorial intention (48), he still wishes to explore the intention of the implied author/narrator: “This study proceeds sequentially through the text, tracing the narrator’s efforts to influence the implied hearer/narratee’s experience of the story.” If, as he argues, he is concentrating on the implied audience, why does he worry about intention at all, whether that of the original or of the implied narrator?

Part one, “A New Approach,” in which Yamasaki articulates his methodology, opens with a chapter which surveys the history of research on John the Baptist. The studies examined are chiefly of the historical-critical variety. A complaint which he constantly issues (and the point of which was not altogether clear to this reviewer) is the failure of these earlier works to consider the reliability of the historical data on John in the Gospels. In chapter two, “Methodology,” Yamasaki sets forth his own method, in interaction with more recent practitioners of a (generally speaking) literary-critical method.

In part two, “Exegesis,” Yamasaki applies his method to the characterization of John in Matthew. In this relatively brief section, the following represent some of the conclusions to which he comes. (1) Even after John has faded from Matthew’s story line (after his baptism of Jesus), he remains important at a discourse level: “The narrator finds John useful for a variety of narrative moves, whether he is free, bound, or even dead” (143). The narrator uses John as a “target of retrospection” in drawing out the theme of John as Jesus’ forerunner to death, both in {84} 3:1-10, where John is introduced, and in 14:3-12a, where he is executed. There are motifs in both these pericopes which are later included as part of Jesus’ own experience (e.g., 4:17; 12:34; 23:33; 7:19; 12:33, for the former, and 21:26, 46; 26:4, 43, 50, 55, 57; 27:15-26, 32-50, for the latter). (2) The narrations of John’s questions (e.g., as to Jesus’ identity, in 11:1-6) serve as occasions for Jesus to elaborate on the nature of his messiahship; thus it may be said that “the narrator uses John for a christological purpose . . .” (147).

This reviewer would rate Yamasaki’s work as somewhere between mediocre and good. His exegetical section is easily the most engaging and fruitful part of the book. However, an air of unfinished business seems to persist, as he seldom relates his own conclusions to the beginning survey of earlier interpretations of John the Baptist.

Devon H. Wiens
Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies
Fresno Pacific University, Fresno, California

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