The Gospel According to Saint John

  • Andrew T. Lincoln
  • Jan 1, 2006
  • Series: Volume 9 - 2006

Andrew T. Lincoln, The Gospel according to Saint John. Black�s New Testament Commentary. London and New York: Continuum; Peabody: Hendrickson, 2005. ix + 584 pp. $29.95. ISBN 1-56563-401-2.

A venerable mid-level commentary series in the United Kingdom, Black�s has never been as well known in the U.S., especially since Harper stopped co-publishing it under the label of Harper�s New Testament Commentary. The original series was completed a quarter century ago, but slowly replacement volumes of very high quality have been appearing. We now have Morna Hooker on Mark, James Dunn on Galatians, J. P. Muddiman on Ephesians, Markus Bockmuehl on Philippians and Sophie Laws on James. Andrew Lincoln, the Portland Professor of New Testament at the University of Gloucestershire at the time this volume went to press, is well known as the Word Biblical commentator on Ephesians and the author of Truth on Trial: The Lawsuit Motif in John�s Gospel. His commentary on John is a worthy addition to this prestigious series.

Lincoln takes something of a centrist position on the historicity of John. While on the one hand highly stressing the witness motif in the Fourth Gospel, he insists that it often does not refer to eyewitness activity. The document may reflect fundamental Christian theological truth without necessarily reflecting the kinds of historical genres to which moderns have become accustomed. Thus Lincoln recognizes a key core of historical information, written up in , overlaid with and augmented by the anonymous author�s unique style, interpretations and inventions to highlight the meaning of Jesus for him. More so than most Johannine commentators of recent vintage, Lincoln sees John beginning in almost every passage with key Synoptic kerygma but then going his own way as he adds his distinctive material to it. Still, it would appear that his approach is consistent with Richard Bauckham�s highly acclaimed work on The Gospels for All Christians.

The strengths of the commentary, however, do not lie in Lincoln�s approach to historical questions. (He acknowledges my much more conservative conclusions in The Historical Reliability of John�s Gospel but rarely interacts with them.) Rather, it is Lincoln�s grasp of the theological intentions and meaning of the Fourth Gospel�s author that commends this volume. He insists that all the building blocks for Nicea are genuinely found in John, whether on the deity of Jesus in such framing texts as John 1:1 and 20:28, on the coinherence of Father and Son in 14:10-11 or on the procession of the Son from the Father and the Spirit from both Father and Son in the Farewell Discourse more generally. He highlights the recurring role of key themes such as God as judge, Jesus as his agent and the way the world is put on trial even as it thinks it is trying Christ. He demonstrates that the supposed anti-Semitism of the Fourth Gospel is no �worse� than the internecine controversies within the Hebrew Scriptures or within late-first-century Judaism. He acknowledges the weaknesses of assuming a watershed event during that era that produced the birkath-ha-minim (the synagogue curse against heretics, including Christians), but still doesn�t admit the larger problems with J. L. Martyn�s two-level reading of John, as Robert Kysar has recently exposed. He does rightly accept conventional wisdom with respect to an end-of-first-century date, and an outline which finds a prologue, a record of signs of glory, a section on departure as glory, and an epilogue.

All manner of smaller details capture John�s theological genius along the way. A minute sampling includes his downplaying of the Baptist�s prominence in light of those who would overly exalt him. The turning of water into wine reflects the abundance of the Messianic age and the impoverishment of the old Jewish rites of purification. The most striking aspect of the famous John 3:16 is God�s love for the world, not just the sum total of humanity, but fallen, rebellious humanity. John 4 should be read in terms of a betrothal-type scene, but Jesus elevates the �engagement� from the physical to the spiritual realm. �The main themes of this narrative might be summed up alliteratively as wedding, water, worship and witness� (p. 182).

The contrasting details of John 5 and 9, in the two healing miracles of men involving pools of water in Jerusalem, create an important balance: someone�s sickness may have a direct connection to one�s particular sins but it need not. Honoring the Son just as one honors the Father (5:22-23) reflects a strong claim to deity, because God does not give his glory (honor) to another. Feeding the 5000 illustrates Jesus� previous claims that the Scriptures, and particularly Moses, witness to him, especially by means of Jesus� follow-up Bread of Life discourse. Walking on water represents an epiphany, with Jesus� �I am� anticipating the strong claim of 8:58, which in turn alludes to Isaiah 43:10. Chapter 7:37-38 should be punctuated so that the rivers of living water flow only from Jesus, not from the believer, because water for John symbolizes the Spirit and one believer cannot impart the Spirit to others. Jesus� seemingly contradictory statements about judging and not judging are best harmonized by understanding �that by ordinary criteria his activity is not really judging, because it is not according to worldly values and is not exercised as an independent human judgment� (p. 266). The good shepherd is best understood as the noble or honorable leader willing even to lay down his life for his flock, as over against the disgraceful leaders of that time who were mercenaries unwilling to sacrifice for their people. In all of these central chapters of John, a major theme is �Jesus as the fulfillment or replacement of the significance of the Jewish festivals� (p. 309).

The resurrection of Lazarus provides the pivot between the two major halves of the Gospel; it is the climactic sign and the catalyst for the plot to take Christ�s life. Mary�s wiping of Jesus� feet precludes our seeing this as a royal anointing but prepares the way for Jesus� own footwashing ceremony, also unique to John�s Gospel. The Pharisees� lament that the whole world had gone after Jesus (12:19) is confirmed by the arrival of the Greeks who want to see him (v. 20). But the rest of this chapter shows that the Gentile mission can come about only by and after Jesus� death. The preparation for that death in successive chapters proves increasingly unprecedented. If �there is no parallel in extant ancient literature for a person of superior status voluntarily washing the feet of someone of inferior status� (p. 367), neither is there parallel within early Christian tradition to viewing the crucifixion itself as exaltation, as in John�s unique references to Christ �being lifted up.� The exclusive claims of 14:6 stand as a direct counter to typical Jewish absolutizing of Torah. The disciples� �greater works� in verse 12 are neither quantitatively nor qualitatively better than Jesus� but represent their full participation in the coming, greater new age. The ministry of the Paraclete in 16:8-11 involves his convicting the world of its sin and condemnation but of Jesus� righteousness. The prayer of chapter 17 forms an equivalent to the Lord�s prayer of Matt. 6:9-13 with parallels to all of its original petitions.

The witness theme comes to a climax with Jesus� passion, death and resurrection. Jesus remains remarkably in control, even as the Judge becomes the judged and then martyred. �God is supremely made known in this death appears so ungodlike� (p. 482). Chapter 20:1-18 is unified by the figure of Mary Magdalene, but Peter and the beloved disciple are introduced as two legal witnesses, because they are male. Their relationship is developed, however, throughout the rest of the narrative, not as a rivalry but to demonstrate both martyrdom and a life of authentic, truthful witness as legitimate Christian alternatives.

The format of this commentary is an attractive one. Each periscope begins, in bold-face type, with Lincoln�s own translation of the Greek text. Then proceed, without subheadings general material introducing the passage, with special reference to its structure, verse-by-verse commentary with wording from John again reproduced in bold-face, followed by concluding summary thoughts often relating the material to Synoptic exemplars (or other sources). Consideration of textual variants is usually relegated to footnotes, but otherwise Lincoln�s text is uncluttered by parenthetical documentation or any other footnotes or endnotes interacting with the wealth of secondary literature that he has obviously digested. This last feature breaks with the precedent established by this series, and, while making the text easy to read, in my opinion, makes the work less valuable than its predecessors, because only the fellow Johannine specialist will know where he has gotten his various opinions from. The bibliography at the end of the book is ample enough yet with a number of surprising recent omissions.

At just about any other time in recent scholarly history, a volume of this caliber would have catapulted to the level of being one of the top two or three commentaries in print on John. But with Köstenberger�s Baker Exegetical volume of 2004 taking pride of place among commentaries on the Greek text, with Kruse�s revised Tyndale volume and Keener�s large two-volume work, also published by Hendrickson, both out in 2003 and offering outstanding succinct and fulsome commentary, respectively, and with D. A. Carson�s Pillar volume of 1991 still reflecting the most sensible all-around opinion at the mid-level range, Lincoln�s probably ranks no higher than fifth in current value. Still, numerous factors regularly prevent theological students, pastors and teachers from purchasing biblical commentaries in their exact order of value, content-wise, so Lincoln�s should certainly be on any serious library builder�s short list of volumes to acquire on John.

Craig L. Blomberg
Distinguished Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary
January 2006