Comparison of "The Gospel of John: A Commentary" and "The Riddles of the Fourth Gospel: An Introduction to John"

  • Frederick Dale Bruner, Paul Anderson
  • Jan 18, 2013
  • Series: Volume 16 - 2013

Bruner, Frederick Dale, The Gospel of John: A Commentary. Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans Publishing, 2012.  ISBN 978-0-8028-6635-6.  1281 pages.  Hardcover, $47.25.

Anderson, Paul N. The Riddles of the Fourth Gospel: An Introduction to John.  Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-8006-0427-1. 296 pages. Paperback, $22.00; Kindle edition, $12.31.

Valuable books on the Gospel of John continue to find their way into our libraries, each one adding to our appreciation and understanding of this complex Gospel.  Two recent books have presented additional insights and perspectives to the hermeneutics of the Gospel of John. While they are very different in their presentation, they are similar in their intended purposes and audiences.  It is therefore beneficial to compare and contrast these two volumes for review purposes.

I.  Bruner, Frederick Dale, The Gospel of John: A Commentary. Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans Publishing, 2012.  ISBN 978-0-8028-6635-6.  1281 pages.  Hardcover, $47.25.

JohnBrunerThe Gospel of John: A Commentary, by Frederick Dale Bruner, is a heavy volume, both physically and theologically.  Well over 1200 pages, Bruner’s approach to John’s Gospel is broadly historical and deeply theological.  Bruner establishes his audience immediately, addressing his commentary to “pastors, teachers, lay churchmen and church women,” as well as “inquirers into the Christian faith” (p. xiii).  Such a broad spectrum of readers no doubt necessitates a large commentary to explain, defend and apply the insights from the biblical text.

Frederick Dale Bruner is a competent exegete and a concerned church theologian.  Like the one who originally penned the intended purpose of the Fourth Gospel, for this commentary, Bruner shares the goal of defending the basis of the Christian faith.  That is, Bruner’s commentary reflects the strong conviction that “Jesus of Nazareth, the eternal Son of God, became a real human being in and for the whole world” (see John 20:31) (p. xvi). 

Bruner sections off the Gospel into large parts (i.e., chapters 1-12); then, smaller units are outlined chapter-by-chapter.  Further, Bruner breaks down each chapter into smaller units that clarify his chapter titles.  He carefully repeats his methodology of evaluating each small section in four ways:  translation, introduction, interpretation and the historical interpretation.  First, the translations presented are his own, based on the Greek text.  He writes that he “mined the Greek text as deeply as possible myself,” but wants to put his own translations into the compilation of 2,000 years of “historical-theological tradition” (p. xv).  Second, the introductions to each smaller section are short summaries, and aid the reader in setting the section in context.  Third, his interpretation of each section is based on his translation into English. This is a detailed, word-by-word and phrase-by-phrase analysis.  In his interpretations, Bruner points out the physical situations, geographical considerations and cultural details found in the text, as well as similar passages in the Synoptics that complement John’s text.  While Bruner interacts with other exegetes and Johannine scholars on some historical considerations, it is most often the theological themes and implications that receive the most weight.  In his interpretation, it is not unusual for Bruner to jump quickly from the historical account of a section to the application of that section for the Church today.  While the events and discourses in John are set in an ancient time and place, their significance for modern readers is primary.  One example is his interpretation of the “Feeding of the Five Thousand,” (John 6:1-15).  Bruner suggests that,

The Feeding of the Five Thousand ends rather mysteriously and incompletely.  Jesus is the miraculous Giver of Bread but in ways profounder than we can yet see.  But the minimal meaning of our text, never to be forgotten, is that Jesus cares for people physically…It is this miracle that teaches the Church unforgettably, indelibly, and initially that Jesus cares that people eat.  The rest of this chapter will climb from this first physical step to still higher spiritual ground….Isn’t our story, with its repeatedly quantitative references to ‘all these,’ ‘the huge crowd,’ and ‘all these people’ (vv. 2, 5, 7, 9) asking the church to believe, at all times, that Jesus is able to meet these quantitative ‘impossibilities’ with his qualitative Person? (p. 366, his emphases).

Fourth and finally, the historical interpretation of each section of the Gospel is primarily an over-view of the historical interpretations of a certain passage.  Bruner recalls the views of the Church’s historical interpreters, from the ancient interpretations of Philo of Alexandria, the allegorical interpretations of Augustine and Origen, to Chrysostom and Aquinas, to the Reformation traditions of Luther and Calvin.  He interacts with the views of noted nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholars such as Westcott, Dodd, Barrett, Brown, Bultmann, Hoskyns and Schnackenburg, and others.  He enters into a dialogue with these noted historical theologians and interpretations, demonstrating his extensive, diverse research and bibliographical sources.  Apparently Bruner considers his efforts to be part of an “‘apostolic succession’ of the Church’s major John interpretations.” It is a “historical-theological Golden Chain through the centuries” (p. xv).  Thus, it is his desire to be another link in the chain, to be a part of the flow of thought “through their witness, [of] how the Encourager Holy Spirit (promised in John 14-16) has led the commentators and their churches through the centuries, to understand ‘the Jesus according to John’” (p. xiv).

Admittedly, I have a personal interest in the prayer of Jesus in John 17 and was anxious to see how Bruner approached this passage.  His translation of the prayer from Greek was quite interesting, as he added clearly emotional words to Jesus’ prayer.  For example: ‘And the very glory you have given to me I give to them….Father, please, I very much want that special group of people that you gave to me to be with me where I am so that they can see the special glory you gave me because you loved me before the foundation of the world….’ (p. 1005, my emphases).

Bruner’s introduction to the prayer is a composite of various views of other scholars before him.  Like other scholars, he shows how the prayer can be divided into six distinct petitions; however, he includes an introductory, “understood ‘please’” at the start of each of Jesus’ petitions before the Father (p. 962).  Like Rudolf Bultmann, Bruner sees the prayer as a “last will and testament of Jesus” for the community (p. 364).  As Ernst Käsemann suggested, “it is unmistakable that this chapter is a summary of the Johannine discourses (chs. 13-17) and in this respect is a counterpart of the prologue (1:1-18)” (p. 965).  He agrees with Josef Blank that the ‘farewell prayer of Jesus is, in a way, a summary of the entire Gospel of John and of its theology of revelation….In this prayer….John shows us what he believes Christian community to be in its inmost nature and not simply in its externa’ (p. 965, Bruner’s emphasis).

Thus, Bruner pushes the prayer into the theological arena as “the very heart of the ministry and message of Jesus;” then, he focuses on the meaning of prayer (in general) for the church today (p. 965-966).  In doing so, he neglects the meaning and significance of the prayer for the original hearers and readers of the Gospel, as well as many literary considerations raised by other scholars.  He does not adequately answer a key question about the meaning and significance of John 17:  unique to the Fourth Gospel, why is it there?

To conclude:  on the one hand, Bruner has given us a massive commentary that is a vast collection of historical and theological approaches to the Fourth Gospel.  He has also given us an important perspective on how the Fourth Gospel can be used for teaching, preaching and living the ancient text in the church, and in the world, today.

II.  Anderson, Paul N. The Riddles of the Fourth Gospel: An Introduction to John.  Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-8006-0427-1. 296 pages. Paperback, $22.00; Kindle edition, $12.31.

RiddlesJohnAndersonOn the other hand, Paul Anderson’s 2011 introduction to the Fourth Gospel is much shorter in length and has a different focus than Bruner’s commentary. The Riddles of the Fourth Gospel: An Introduction to John by Anderson is written for a more general audience.  As an introductory volume, Anderson states that that he does not enter into “full treatment” of theories and proposals.  Full scholarly discussions on various topics can be viewed in the works provided in the bibliography (p. 245). 

Yet, like Bruner’s commentary, The Riddles is intended for “students of the Fourth Gospel – students on several levels” (p. xi).  It is geared for readers who need a bit more explanation and definition of terminologies and methodologies.  Anderson does this very well, defining and clarifying words, theories and methods typically used by Johannine scholarship. He has included clear endnotes, a glossary of terms, an annotated bibliography, and a bibliographic appendix that all prove to be helpful for Bible readers who bump into the difficult “perplexities” of the Fourth Gospel. 

Professor Anderson makes a point of differentiating his view of “riddles” from that of scholar Tom Thatcher.  Thatcher presents his views concerning the “riddles” in John’s Gospel in his book, Jesus the Riddler: The Power of Ambiguity in the Gospels (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006).  Thatcher argues that Jesus intentionally used ambiguity in his discourses and in his deeds as a way to move his audiences to new levels of understanding.  Yet, Anderson is not dealing with only the literary issues of the Gospel such as double-entendres and parabolic speech, as much as he is focusing on “perplexing literary, historical and theological issues one runs into when taking the Gospel of John seriously” (p. xiii).  In the first half of the book, then, Anderson presents what he considers to be three kinds of  riddles: literary, historical and theological.  In addition, he encourages the reader to view the given passages in a good Bible version to perceive “firsthand” the difficulties that arise (p. 5).

There is little doubt that novice Bible readers and seasoned Gospel scholars alike have encountered difficult and perplexing words and deeds in John’s Gospel that are unique to his account of Jesus’ life and ministry.  This is Anderson’s third book written about the Fourth Gospel, and he, too, demonstrates his extensive study through a variety of resources.  He recognizes familiar historical questions, such as the authorship and redaction of the Gospel, the apparent contrasts to the Synoptic Gospels, the origin of Jesus’ “signs,” and he approaches the question as to whether the Gospel narrative is rooted in history at all.  Literary questions surround the structure of the book, the presence of John’s Prologue (1:1-18), as well as the unusual “double ending” and epilogue (ch. 21).  Why and when was John 7:53-8:11 “added” to the manuscript?  Who is the “beloved disciple,” and why is he addressed as such?  What relation is there between the Gospel, the Johannine epistles and the book of Revelation (if there is one, indeed)?  Theological questions center on Christology -- who is Jesus, human or divine?  Why is the Holy Spirit included in this Gospel (chs. 14-16)?   What does John teach about eschatology, salvation, and the dualism of good and evil?  Is the Fourth Gospel written for Christian believers or for “seekers?”  These questions, and so many more, make the Fourth Gospel “a stream in which a child can wade and an elephant can swim” (p. 1 and see p. 245 for the origin of this saying).

Anderson stays true to this thematic imagery, and is brings to the foreground the “muddy waters” of theological tensions, literary debates, and historical perplexities that have kept Johannine scholars, and ordinary Christian believers, contemplating and debating for centuries.  In the second half of the book, he interacts with various pertinent interpretative approaches to the Gospel of John.  He does so with a physical presentation that enhances the book’s “readability” and “useability.”  Chapters include “bullet-points” for easy comparison and contrasts, and numbered “boxes” which help to sort out differences and emphases in that particular chapter. 

In a manner similar to Bruner’s historical interpretations, Anderson analyzes earlier scholarly approaches to the Fourth Gospel, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of two major scholarly approaches – the “traditional” and the “critical” (p. 95-106).  In the end, Anderson presents his concept of a “diachronic Gospel.”  That is, initially, it was Rudolf Bultmann that suggested that the literary, historical and theological features of the Johannine perplexities are brought together as characteristics in a “highly diachronic process” (p. 106-107).  Further, John Ashton and J. Louis Martyn proposed that John’s Gospel should be read on “two levels: the level of what happened (history) and the level of its meaning (theology) for the Evangelist and his audience” (p. 117).  This “two-level” reading has both strengths and weaknesses.  It was Alan Culpepper’s book, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel (1983) that brought attention to the third aspect of the text, the literary approach (p. 119).  Anderson writes that all the way through these historical approaches and developments, attempts have been made to reconcile and resolve the Johannine riddles.  He concludes that the “best way forward” is to begin with the premise that “the Gospel of John is best interpreted as a literary narrative with its own claims to memory and interpretation of Jesus’ ministry whoever the author might have been” (p. 123). 

On this foundation, Anderson unpacks the “dialogical autonomy of the Fourth Gospel” in his sixth chapter.  He contends that the “autonomous tradition” of John’s Gospel developed independently, alongside of the Gospel of Mark, but not dependent upon it (p. 126).  He considers John and Mark to be “bi-optic Gospels” that developed in parallel ways but without dependence on each other.  The two accounts are “interfluential (mutual influence, back and forth), in the oral stages of their traditions”; John is also “augmentive and corrective” to Mark’s account (p. 145).  A complicated chart is used to illustrate Anderson’s concept of the relationships between John and the Synoptic Gospels (p. 151).  Further, not unlike earlier scholars, Anderson outlines a “two-edition theory of the Gospel composition” from about 80 or 85 C.E. to 100 C.E. (p. 143).  Most striking is Anderson’s paraphrase of 21:25:  “Yes, I know the Synoptics are available, but this complementary selection of material is intentional!” (p. 143).

Finally, Anderson reminds his readers that the ultimate goal of his book is to “open oneself to its message and to allow its story to engage us personally.  Otherwise, can we really claim that we are taking a text seriously?” (p. 93).  From the individual believer to the community, his tenth chapter is “Johannine Ecclesiology,” where he suggests that “John excels in its distinctive approaches to church vitality.  John’s is a theological encounter.  It rises from transformative encounter and seeks to engender the same in later audiences. Whether a wader or a swimmer, the reader is finally invited to jump into the water and see what happens experientially” (p. 221).  I think that is what Bruner is trying to say, too.

In conclusion, Anderson’s introductory book highlights a weakness in Bruner’s volume; that is, it is necessary for today’s readers to consider all three aspects of the Johannine biblical text:  the historical, the literary and the theological, to even begin to comprehend the breadths and depths of this Gospel.  Yet, both scholars (Bruner and Anderson) are correct to challenge to the readers of today to truly encounter the Johannine Jesus.

In that sense, the time-changing revelation of God’s love comes to us not in the form of a doctrinal missive, but as the Incarnate Word, expressed not as an inanimate form or lifeless concept, but as a living, breathing speaking, acting, feeling, thinking person.  The only way to comprehend this subject is from the perspective of encounter – to behold the glory of the flesh-becoming Word, full of grace and truth (1:14).  When that happens, the reader is moved from the Johannine riddles into mystery, where a new set of riddles emerges (The Riddles of the Fourth Gospel, p. 243).

Judith A. Diehl, Ph.D.
New Testament Associated Faculty
Denver Seminary
January, 2013