BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 68, 2020

CAROLE FERCH-JOHNSON, Telling Hands and Touching Feet: Nonverbal Communication in Two of the Narratives of Acts (RD 61; Oxford: Peter Lang, 2019). Pp. xxii + 381. Paperback. US$72.95.

In Telling Hands and Touching Feet, Carole Ferch-Johnson offers an examination of the role of human hands and feet as media of nonverbal communication in the transmission of the mission and message of Jesus by the early church. The research focusses on two of the narratives in Acts: Peter’s healing of the lame beggar, and Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus (3:1–11; 9:1–9a) and demonstrates that nonverbal communication by hands and feet portrayed in these stories plays an active role in interpersonal relationships. The purpose of this research is twofold: first, it sets out to discover how nonverbal communication functions in these two narratives and to assess whether it transmits meaning effectively; and along these lines, to discover what role nonverbal communication plays in the formation of the human relationships involved. The second purpose is to determine whether nonverbal communication in the two narratives contributes to the fulfilment of the mission of Jesus through his disciples.

The study proceeds in two main parts. In part 1, Ferch-Johnson shows that human hands communicate nonverbally throughout Acts by helping, healing and commissioning for service. They send messages by signalling and symbolising through leading, begging, bearing gifts and bestowing. However, in opposition to the mission of Jesus, sometimes they communicate violence (147). Following this, Ferch-Johnson shows that some of these same principles also emerge in the Greek literature of Second Temple Judaism. In the LXX, hands communicate help, authority, resuscitation, bestowal, leading power to save, and release from bondage; they also communicate threats of violence. Similar principles also emerge in the poet Aratus, the playwright Aeschylus, and the medical texts of Hippocrates and Soranus; most notably, threats of violence or the provision of medical aid.

In part 2, Ferch-Johnson deals with human feet and their functions as media of nonverbal communication. Human feet enable the bodily movement necessary for people to socially connect. This allows for further communication through the exchange of verbal and nonverbal messages. Feet send messages through signalling and symbolising; they physically carry the able-bodied as they come and go and support people as they climb, stand, walk, leap and run. However, Ferch-Johnson also notes that feet fail to support the profoundly lame unless they are sufficiently strengthened. Feet make meeting and departing possible as well as entry into various spaces where further communication can take place; they permit a person to lead or be led by another; they also give way when a person falls and assist if they rise up. At the same time, feet bring others into proximity with Jesus so they may benefit from his ministry. Ferch-Johnson then explores this idea through the LXX, which portrays human feet nonverbally communicating details of travel on epic journeys. In accordance with the narratives of Acts, feet function as they approach, climb, stand, walk, leap, run, go, come, lead, enter, give way to falling, or help in getting up and as they fail to support the profoundly lame. Similarly, in the Greek poetry of Aratus, feet communicate through strutting, arriving, departing, coming and going. Aeschylus also notes their functions: standing nonverbally communicates strength, terror, or threat, whereas approaching another signals social success or communicates protection.

One of the primary conclusions of the research is that human hands and feet indeed communicate meaning effectively. This is demonstrated by the outcomes from two levels of communication—that is, bodily part activity, which provided the content of the nonverbal communication; and the messages sent and received by this activity that affected relationships between people.

Ferch-Johnson’s research breaks significant new ground in biblical study. She draws on the insights of communication theorists—most notably, Julia T. Wood—with a particular focus on nonverbal communication in order to examine the missional function of hands and feet in the apostolic period. As Ferch-Johnson notes in the introduction, the study of communication as an academic pursuit is as recent as only the twenty-first century (4). For this reason, the dynamics of nonverbal communication have received very little attention in NT scholarship, making this study both unique and important in its foundational contribution to the field. Even a cursory glance through the footnotes and bibliography reveals the uniqueness of the study. One, of course, finds relevant secondary source engagement where it pertains to methodology. But, for the most part, the reader is met by a compendium of primary source references to feet and hands, each of which being carefully examined through the lens of non-verbal communication theory. This ground-breaking approach not only offers a fresh trajectory in biblical studies but makes an important contribution to theological thinking more generally.

Review by
Adam G. White
Alphacrucis College, Parramatta
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