Perspectives on John: Semiotic Theology

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When is a Thing not a Thing?

In the cabinet to right and above the stove, are four Ball Mason jars, two wide mouth and two regular, each quart sized. They are what you would commonly think of if you thought of a Mason Jar, transparent glass with the word ‘Mason’ imprinted on the bottom and the word ‘Kerr’ in script above it. Normally, my wife and I drink water out of them, trying to stay hydrated the best we can by making sure we get around two jars a day. Occasionally, they get used for craft projects for the children or as flower vases if we happen to bring in wildflowers.

And yet the Mason jar is more than a simple drinking jar; it is a series of memories and cultural affectations, born of a lifetime of experiences. It is drinking sweet tea in the backyard of a particularly humid evening at the parsonage in Thomaston. It is seeing my aunt Louise’s cellar at Possum Trot on the Berry College campus filled with summer vegetables to be eaten at family dinners in the fall or winter. It is an afternoon of painting random things on typing paper with my children or the centerpiece to a table set for neighbors at seminary in Kentucky.

It is a drinking jar and yet, it is much more than that. It is a reminder of home and the things that make home, well, home. It is a connection to something deep, meaningful, a sense of belonging that comes with the combination of memory and experience. That drinking jar is a sign, a significant marker of an emotional bond existing beyond the time and space of its birth.

Each of us could probably think of something that we see or use in a similar fashion. And the truth is it can be anything from a physical object to a certain smell to a certain feeling you have. All of these things can be signs that bind us to people, places, and moments in time.

A definition of Semiotic theology

When we read biblical literature, we find texts filled with allusions to signs, things which are representative of something other than themselves. I say signs rather than symbols because signs are part of a system called codes, a series signs that are put together to send out direct and meaningful communication. It’s like developing a language using not only words and thoughts but gestures and movements, all done for a particular circumstance.

For instance, say you went to a college football game. How would we know that a particular person was a fan of a particular team? The stadium will be filled with colors, those of the home team and those of the visiting team.  Let’s say the home team is red and the visitors are blue. A man wearing a red shirt is standing just outside, watching people walk into the stadium. Is the red shirt a definite giveaway that he is for the home team? Not really. He could just like red and be standing there to see what all the commotion is about. But what if add a red hat to go with the shirt? It’s still not enough to say for sure that the man is interested in the home team. What if I told you it was Saturday and you were in Athens, Georgia, outside Sanford Stadium? Almost there, but still not quite. One final crucial touch, one more sign is necessary to make the code complete, and that sign is the letter G. The G on the shirt would be the definitive sign to make the code complete or at least make it close enough to reasonably assume so.

All of these signs – the red shirt, the red hat, the location, the crowd – point in the direction of a certain thing but it requires one crucial sign, the G, to let you know with some certainty that the man is a fan of the home team. When all those signs come together, we call that a code, which is kind of like a language for a specific circumstance. In this case the language is made up of clothing that is a certain color, a location that has specific purpose, a certain day of the week, and an insignia on the clothing. This is the language of college football and any fan in the south would have recognized with just a few of those signs the language or code being spoken.

An application

John chapter 21 is actually an addendum, like the first part of chapter 1. Most scholars believe it was added later after the basic manuscript was finished[i] and our job is to look at the signs and see what code they point to, to try to find out why it might have been added and for what purpose, kind of like being spiritual code breakers.

Fishing as a sign

Peter, as several other disciples, was a fisherman. As our story begins in chapter 21, Peter goes back to doing what he had always done, what he knew how to do: fish. Given that Peter could not handle the boat and nets alone, he enlisted the help of his fellow disciples.[ii] The disciples go fishing and find nothing all night for their troubles, not a solitary fish for the effort. The next morning, exhausted physically from the work and mentally from recent events, they head in to shore. Waiting there on the shore as they head in is a man they do not recognize who refers to them as children and asks if they caught anything. They say no and the stranger tells them to throw the net out to the other side of the boat where they find ‘so many fish that they couldn’t haul in the net.’[iii] Peter recognizes Jesus and impetuously jumps into the water, swimming to shore while the others bring in the boat and the net. Once ashore, they find Jesus sitting there at a fire, waiting with bread which he gives them to go with the fish (a common menu reminiscent of John 6:1-15). The writer of the addendum notes that Jesus has now appeared three times to the group since his death.

Fishing, according to one theologian, might represent bringing to light those things in your subconscious that you have previously not wanted to deal with. Eating also has subconscious overtones, in this case to begin to assimilate or accept things that you have previously not wanted to accept.[iv] In the disciple’s case, they are having to deal concretely, with the death and consequent resurrection of their master and friend. So, this fishing episode may well be a sign to point to their acceptance of Jesus death and resurrection.

Asking Simon “Do you love me?” three times as a sign

The second part takes place after breakfast, as Jesus asks a very pointed question to Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” This question plays on two things: Peter’s tendency to react quickly or impetuously and Peter’s internal desire to set himself above the other disciples. We see this throughout the gospel of John as Peter is often the one of the group to speak up, out, and often too much for and in the situation.[v] The words used for ‘love’ are different in Jesus question and Peter’s answer. Jesus says, ‘do you agape me?’ and Peter responds ‘I phileo you’. This is an important distinction in that the words are translated into English as the same but have very different meanings. Mixed in with this is Jesus admonition to take care of the other followers: “Feed my lambs”, “Take care of my sheep”, “Feed my sheep”. This repetition is similar to the repetition of Peter’s denial in John 18 and points Peter back to a time when he had said, “I’ll give up my life for you”.[vi]

Agape is best understood in light of the meal that the disciples share with Peter, a meal reminiscent of the Eucharist or love feast meals of the early church. This idea of agape is the idea of love of man for God and God for man. It is akin to the idea of a complete, unreserved feeling of affection for another.[vii] Phileo on the other hand, is a lesser expression, which has to do with have feelings of fondness or to treat someone with kindness and affection. Phileo is more a surface expression of affinity for something where agape goes to the bone, a deep, intense connection.

The second sign seems to be that Peter will be tasked with a responsibility for the ‘sheep’ of Jesus’ flock and that Peter will be expected to love as Jesus loved and most likely die as Jesus died.

The disciple Jesus loved as a sign

After their discussion, Peter looks and sees ‘the disciple Jesus loved’ – who many presume to be John the son of Zebedee – and asks, “what about him?” In other words, Peter is saying, ‘you are giving me all this stuff to do but what is he going to be up to.’ It reminds me of my kids doing chores when one of them is doing something and the other is doing something they regard as easier. “Why does he/she only have to do that?”

Within this passage, the Greek gets a little technical. Suffice it to say, the point is about whether the beloved disciple will remain alive until Jesus returns as is mentioned in Mark 9:1. Jesus makes it clear that this is irrelevant in the grander scheme of things, saying to Peter, “It doesn’t matter what he does. You know what you have to do.” Ultimately, the point is the point I make to my children, “You each have things to do. Now, go do them.” Jesus is saying that each disciple will be tasked with something according the direction that the Spirit of God give them.

As a sign, we might regard this as a commissioning of sorts, with each disciple having a God-given responsibility in the years to come.

The code for the signs

If we were putting these signs together into a code, a collection of signs that point to a singular idea or expression of something, it might look something like this. The disciples, having faced their grief over Jesus death and shock over his resurrection are now being given individual tasks to live into going forward. The code for this might be that this future assembly of followers will also have to come to grips with the death and resurrection of Jesus as they who follow the followers and the follower’s followers learn how to live into the life that God calls them to through the work of Jesus.

So, what do you think?


Barthes, R. (1977). Elements of Semiology. New York: HIll and Wang Publishing.

Danesi, M. (2008). Of Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things (2nd ed.). New York, NY, USA: Palgrave MacMillan.

Eco, U. (1979). A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Haenchen, E. (1984). John 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of John Chapters 7-21. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Richards, I. (1965). The Philosophy of Rhetoric. New York: Oxford Universtiy Press.

Sanford, J. A. (2000). Mystical Christianity: A Psychological Commentary on the Gospel of John. New York: Crossroad Publishing.

Spong, J. S. (2013). The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.


[i] (Sanford, 2000, p. 332)

[ii] (Haenchen, 1984, p. 230)

[iii] John 21:6

[iv] (Sanford, 2000, p. 333)

[v] John 6, 13, 18, 20, 21

[vi] John 13:36-38




An Attempt at Theo-semiotics

This is a paper I submitted for a New Testament exegesis class, my first attempt at theo-semiotics. Not sure if the Greek font will translate well but I think you will get the gist of it.

A Theological-Literary Analysis of e;rgon in James

Thoughts and intents

“…word and language form the medium that sustains the common existence of the human spirit as such. The reality of the word in eminent ways makes existential interaction happen. And so, if the word becomes corrupted, human existence will not remain unaffected and untainted.”  – Josef Pieper, Abuse of Language–Abuse of Power[1]

In contemporary culture, we find that communicating religious meaning is becoming increasingly difficult both with the confines of Christianity and within that of other religions. The world struggles to define things clearly when speaking on matters of importance as the world has moved into a place of autonomous self-definition. Linguistic philosophy has given birth to relativistic culture that proclaims it no longer feels the need for a unified standard of meaning. Where Webster once gave us the meanings for the words our language, the internet now allows for a steady stream of culturally redefined, repurposed terminology. Language is reduced to text-speak (LOL, OMG) and language evolves seemingly away from a sense of permanency to an uneasy collection of colloquial dialectical expression.

This makes the expression of theological ideas in relation to the general populace difficult to translate. We use terms like “save” or “redeem” to mean something from a soteriological context and the general public sees them as expression for financial responsibility or an exchange of goods or services based resulting from direct marketing. The language that once allowed us the precision to convey exact thought now id reduced to sound bites that become slang euphemisms. The question becomes, how do we translate an ancient language tied to a culture that no longer exists, to a modern world where the use of certain words may only last part of a generation (anyone “feelin’ jake” these days)?

There may be, however, a means of translation that can perhaps reach beyond this verbal milieu to offer a sliding definition that has the ability to be attached to new language as it develops. The means would involve the use of basic exegetical principles seen through the lens semiotic analysis. This analysis would bring about the synthesis of new words relevant to the contemporary language and vernacular used in a culture. For the purpose of this project we are limiting the examination to a single word that has been a bane to theologians for centuries, the Greek word e;rgon as found in the Epistle of James.

An exegetical analysis of e;rgon in James

E;rgon is used fifteen times beginning in James 1:4 and going through James 3:13 and usually in the form of a noun (the verbal form is ργζομαι used once in James 1:20). The predominate usage of e;rgon is reserved for James 2, where the word is used thirteen times. The word e;rgon can be used in variety of ways to illustrate the concept of doing something either physically or mentally and these meanings have some minor, in some sense technical variance from the use in ancient or classical Greek through the development period of biblical literature.

Ancient Greek meanings

Kittel notes the most basic, most common used definition is that of activity or active zeal[2]. While e;rgon can it can mean any kind of active work[3], it most often denotes useful activity in contrast to useless busyness[4]. It also speaks to work in the social or ethical sense either as a burden laid on man of as a necessary means of life and support[5] and can be used in the sphere of moral action[6] to which Kittel writes, “Honest work is the basis and meaning of life…man is judged by his works, his achievement, his deeds, his total conduct.”[7]

Biblical meanings

BDAG references this most basic Greek definition saying it is that which displays itself in activity of any kind, deed, action (in contrast to word). [8] However, it is used as well for the Creation acts of God[9] as recorded in the Septuagint. The second noted use biblically is that of fulfilling the Law as a Holy Work undertaken by the righteous[10] and work done as a divinely given task (God instructing man to do certain deeds on His behalf)[11]. It is frequently used in the above manner to describe people of exceptional merit, especially benefactors. This is exemplified in the author of James usage in vv.21-25, making the deeds performed by Ἀβραὰμ and Ῥαὰβ actions or works of faith done on behalf of or in the name and purposes of God.

The Pauline understanding of works is often seen as a negative in relation to the Jewish stress on works “to which there is an intellectualistic misunderstanding of faith.”[12] This however, should not be taken out of its context as the purpose of Paul’s writing and the audience it was intended for differ from that of James lending an emphasis that differs from The Epistle of James. The author of James has a view of works as a complimentary aspect of the salvific / sanctification experience (James 2), in relation to that which is a divinely given task, for God’s glory and man’s edification. This is found in the contrast between e;rga and pi.stij where the second amounts to nothing more than a verbal statement if not exemplified by action, a concept that would be echoed in the writing of Paul when read in the proper context.[13]

Exegetical thoughts in relation to e;rgon

To understand the meaning of e;rgon in relation to the Epistle of James, we must of course take into consideration the socio-historical circumstances under which was written. It is difficult to set the text historically as the epistle may have been written as early as the mid first century or as late as the year 200 CE. As such, we can only say definitively that it was written in the early Christian period and to the pre-Roman Church. If it is early, the text may be taken as a collection of admonitions in aphoristic form for the Jewish Christian church scattered outside of Jerusalem. If later, the text could be an expression of wisdom literature intended for the Christians spread across the Roman Empire.

The structure of the pericope where the predominant usage of e;rgon is found and where the most specific meaning is derived relates to James 2:14-26. This is a continuation of 2:1-13 based on the discussion of partiality in those verse and how they connect to the idea of acting on that lack of partiality by taking care of those we come in contact with who are in need.

The structure is that of rhetorical argument as noted by Blaz and Schneider who state, “The argument in Jas. 2:14-26 takes over the juxtaposition of pi,stij and dikaio,w from the Abraham tradition and explains that faith and works necessarily belong together (2:26)”[14]  Patrick Hartin constructs the argument after this fashion:

a)    Theme (proposito) – Faith without works cannot save you (14)

b)    Reason (ratio) – Example of faith without works in the community (15-17)

c)     Proof (rationis confirmation) – Argument against imaginary opponent (18-19)

d)    Embellishment (exornatio) – Argument from Scripture: Abraham and Rahab (20-25)

e)    Conclusion (conplexio) – Faith without works is dead (26) [15]

Hartin sees the argument as defining the idea of e;rgon in relation to the most classical definition in Greek, good deeds, not to be understood in the same fashion as one might understand the Pauline criticism mentioned previously. The argument, as presented above, shows how the writer of James clearly makes the case that faith needs works as an expression for proof of its existence while not falling into the trap of righteousness based, legalistic faith. Ralph Martin agrees, writing, “The thrust of James’ argument is that indeed there is no profit (i.e. salvation-bringing efficacy) for anyone exhibiting the type of faith exhibited in vv.15-16a.”[16] Hartin states, “The erga (“works”) to which James refers are understood as “good deeds”…and are not erga nomou (“works of the law”).”[17] These works are works born of recognizing the need to ‘give feet to our faith’ (2:15-16) and show that there is truly no partiality in us as we have both pi,stij and e;rgon, a balanced expression of being a Follower in the Way. Luke Timothy Johnson expresses the idea of acting out faith by consistent deeds by calling it “the theme implicit from the first.”[18] Therefore the ‘good deeds’ definition is an accurate one but must be qualified in context so that it is properly juxtaposed to be the physical expression of a sincere faith/belief.

A semiotic analysis of e;rgon

Semiotics is in essence the study of everything that can be taken as a sign or in a broader sense of anything that can stand for something else.[19] It is concerned with what can be termed meaning making and usually refers either to finding this meaning in relation to ‘text’ and ‘media.’[20] Two schools of thought in relation to semiotics have arisen with respect to the two figures responsible for birthing the modern understanding of this practice: Swiss Linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) and American philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce (1839-1914).[21] Semiology or semiotics as a term was coined by Saussure in his posthumously published work Course in General Linguistics.[22] For the purpose of this examination we will use the Saussurean method.

The principle methodology described by Saussure is based on the idea of understanding the sign in relation to the two parts that make up the sign, the signifier and signified. Chandler defines the Saussurean terms by saying, “The sign is the whole that results from the association of the signifier with the signified…The relationship between the signifier and the signified is referred to as ‘signification’”[23] The signifier and signified were to Saussure pure psychological constructs[24], making the exercise of understanding signs well suited to a literary or philosophical pursuit. The signifier is considered the material or physical form of the sign, where the signified is defined as a concept in the mind, a “notion of the signifier.”[25] When the signifier is given / gives meaning to the signified, the process (called signification) creates a sign. By way of example we might consider it this way:

Signifier: write

Signified: write on the paper

The following image might help to illustrate the concept:


This process ‘makes meaning’ in the sense that there are many signifiers that could be used to give meaning to the signified in this case (write=scribble, jot, pen, etc.). In the case of literature and literary pursuits, the signifier is invariably a word which is intended to cause the psychological response of giving meaning to the concept in the signified. This process, signification, is something we as human beings do unconsciously, based on our experience of language and defined by the cultural constructs we associate with that language. Signs make sense only in relation to other signs and therefore need to be interpreted with/in relation to other signs as both signifier and signified are relational entities.[26] With these concepts in mind, we will attempt to apply this methodology to an arena ripe with signs and meaning: theology.

qeoshmei/on: a synthesis (theo-semiotics)

The purpose of applying semiotics to theology is to (1) find a means of translating theological concepts into modern context and (2) giving greater meaning to these concepts by that translation. Building on this concept of signs being understood in relation to other signs, we can make a linguistic analysis of theological signs in relation to their secular counterparts and in doing so not only define a biblical idea for someone outside the religious arena but also find greater meaning within the biblical context.

In this examination, we have considered the meaning of the Greek term e;rgon with respect to its meaning in James 2:14-26. According to our resultant exegesis of the term, we have derived a definition for e;rgon as being “good deeds performed in relation to a sincere faith.” If it were to be represented in the fashion of a Saussurean diagram, it would look something like this:


In the above, we see the signifier e;rgon in relation to the signified phrase good deeds performed in relation to faith. From this we see the complete sign formed in the psychological construct we consider to be: e;rgon. If we apply the semiotic process in a theological vein, it creates a comparative between the sacred (biblical) and profane (secular) which can be used to understand a sign greater than either individual sign. Combined they might be illustrated thus:

The sign above illustrates the process of comparative signification between biblical and secular where the terms e;rgon and deeds/works are equivalent terms acting as signifiers for the signified phrases “good deeds performed in relation to sincere faith” and “religious acts performed philanthropically for others on God’s behalf.” As none of the secular terms are privileged in the sense that they are completely static (as the biblical term is), they can be manipulated to form a sign that relates to any culture into which the sign is introduced.

The value of this in being able to constructs signs that have equivalent relationships across differing systems or expressions. In the theological-literary sphere, this would allow for terms which have specific biblical meaning to be constantly updated as signs with value to the current socio-historical or cultural circumstance into which they are introduced. In doing so, religious speak is no longer a privileged mode of communication but simply a static sign to be understood in relation to the variable, evolving signs of the emerging culture of the world.

Works Cited

Bauer, W., Danker, W. F., Arndt, W. F., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature. Chicago, Il, USA: University of Chicago Press.

Blaz, H., & Schneider, G. (Eds.). (1994). Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Vol. II). Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Chandler, D. (2002). Semiotics: The Basics. London; New York: Routledge.

Hartin, P. (2003). James (Vol. 14). (S. D. Harrington, Ed.) Collegeville, MN, USA: Liturgical Press.

Johnson, L. T. (1995). The Leeter of James: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary by Luke Timothy Johnson. New Haven; London: Yale University Press.

Kittel, G. (1964). Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Vol. 2). (G. Bromiley, Trans.) Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Louw, J. (1982). Semantic of New Testament Greek. Atlanta, GA, USA: Scholars Press.

Martin, R. P. (1988). James (Vol. 48). Waco, TX, USA: Word Books.

McCartney, D. G. (2009). James. Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Baker Academic.

McKnight, S. (2011). The Letter of James. Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Pieper, J. (1992). Abuse of Language–Abuse of Power. (L. Krauth, Trans.) San Francisco, CA, USA: Ignatius

[1] (Pieper, 1992), p. 15

[2] (Kittel, 1964) p. 635

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5] ibid

[6] ibid

[7] (Kittel, 1964), p. 636

[8] (Bauer, Danker, Arndt, & Gingrich, 2000), p. 390-391

[9] (Kittel, 1964), p.637-638

[10] (Kittel, 1964), p. 644-645

[11] (Kittel, 1964), p. 648-649

[12] (Kittel, 1964), p. 651

[13] (McCartney, 2009), p.53-56

[14] (Blaz & Schneider, 1994), p. 51

[15] (Hartin, 2003), p. 156-157

[16] (Martin, 1988), p. 80

[17] (Hartin, 2003), p. 156

[18] (Johnson, 1995), p. 245-246

[19] (Chandler, 2002), p. 2

[20] ibid

[21] (Chandler, 2002), p. 5

[22] ibid

[23] (Chandler, 2002), p. 18-20

[24] (Chandler, 2002), p. 18

[25] ibid

[26] (Chandler, 2002), p. 22