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‘The eagle has landed’? The person of Jesus

The first men on the moon nicknamed their Lunar Module ‘the Eagle’; as they touched down, the first words spoken were, ‘the eagle has landed’. This phrase sums up John’s Prologue: the Word of God has left the cosmic heights and come to dwell among us – the eagle has landed. From that moment, Jesus is nearly always centre stage. Even when he is absent, those on stage discuss who Jesus is and what they are going to do about him (1.19–28; 3.25–26; 7.45–52; 10.19–21; 11.45–53, 55–57; 12.9–11; 20.24–25). He dominates the text, being the subject of most of the narrative and delivering most of the discourse. He is the central character – and yet here we must be cautious. Characterization is crucial to modern literary criticism, especially the study of narrative. ‘Flat’ characters are dismissed as caricatures or stereotypes, while ‘round’ characters are carefully built up through psychological examination in modern biography, or narration of the person’s internal feelings in a modern novel. However, the standard method of characterization in Graeco-Roman biographies, and in all ancient narrative for that matter, was through indirect means, by depiction of the subject’s great deeds and words. The ancients were more interested in moral character than psychological personality, in the ‘type’ or example more than in the rounded individual. In the gospels, the character of Jesus is depicted not by direct analysis, but by the narration of his great deeds and words, his miracles and teaching. John has the additional difficulty of describing the human life, ministry, and death of Jesus after the sublime heights of the Prologue: so, does the eagle ever actually land?…

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