The Gospel of John
J. Ramsey Michaels. The Gospel of John. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2010. $65.00. xxvii + 1094 pap. ISBN 978-0-8028-2302-1.
During F. F. Bruce’s long tenure in the 1960s through the 1980s as editor of the NICNT series, it was known as the best place to find evangelical New Testament commentaries that would strongly defend the historicity of the biblical text. Under Gordon Fee’s editorship during the last two decades, there has been a notable shift, especially with volumes on the Gospels and Acts, to focus more on the final form of the text and literary or narrative criticism. Volumes also interact somewhat less with the ever-growing wealth of secondary literature. Michaels’ volume on John proves no exception to these trends. Unlike his predecessor, Leon Morris, who wrote the original volume on John in this series, Michaels is content to leave apparent contradictions with the Synoptics stand without resolution (e.g., John’s early chronology for the temple cleansing, the apparently different days for the crucifixion, and the Johannine “Pentecost” occurring in 20:22) and focus instead on how passages function within the overall narrative flow of the Fourth Gospel. He does, however, observe the numerous places in which John assumes knowledge of the common kerygma found in the Synoptics (what Morris had stressed and called “interlocking”). Unlike Morris, Michaels writes a very short introduction, rejects Johannine authorship and takes very few stands on issues of who the beloved disciple really was (while discounting the son of Zebedee), when the book was written (though probably after A.D. 70 but without aposunagōgos being an anachronism) or to whom (though likely mostly Gentile-Christian). Discussion of Johannine schools or communities or stages of redaction (whether for or against them) is almost nonexistent. Throughout the commentary proper, however, Michaels notes that those passages in which the beloved disciple appears read as if they were originally first-person eyewitness reports.
Although Michaels frequently interacts in his footnotes with older, classic, more liberal commentators like Bultmann, Barrett, Brown, Lindars and Schnackenburg, he ignores altogether the more recent valuable contributions of Köstenberger, Kysar, Burge, O’Day, Segovia, D. M. Smith and von Wahlde. Monographs and essays only sparsely dot the footnotes, which are dominated by content notes rather than references to secondary literature. Michaels invests great significance in continuing large sections of narrative when consecutive sentences begin only with co-ordinating conjunctions in order to argue for 1:1-5, 1:6-3:36 and 4:10-12:50 as the first three major sections of the book, but he then abandons this criterion to stick with the popular division that sees the beginning of a new section at 13:1, even though a stronger case by his own approach can be made for starting it at 12:1. He keeps chapter 21 linked with the passion and resurrection narrative of chapters 18-20 but at the expense of making 20:30-31 a summary of only the last little bit of John 20 rather than of the whole Gospel.
Michaels handles the text of the Fourth Gospel itself with masterful command, regularly hearing plausible intertextual echoes from one part of the Gospel to another and from the OT to the FG (e.g., “lifting up” echoing Isaiah 52:13; Jesus’ repeated “making himself” to be someone; summoning Lazarus out of the tomb as an example of Jesus’ calling his sheep by name; or the two charcoal fires at Peter’s denial and recall in 18:18 and 21:9; the disciples’ failure in 21:3 dramatizing 15:5; and Jesus’ meal of bread and fish with them after the miraculous catch reprising the feeding of the 5000). Sometimes, Michaels refuses to see any symbolism in details that commentators often assume are pregnant with such meaning (e.g., the stones jars for ritual purification in 2:6, the seven-day sequence in chapter 1-3, or the necessity of Jesus going through Samaria in 4:4). But other times he does find symbolism where many do not (“nothing is lost” of the bread crumbs in 6:12 echoing promises of “eternal security” elsewhere; “the Jews who had believed him” in 8:31 standing for later factions in Jewish Christianity; or Martha’s confession as the explicit paradigm for faith among Johannine Christians despite Thomas’ being more profound and climactic) and it is hard to discern the criteria for his varying choices.
Theologically, “the Jews” throughout the FG is an umbrella term for priestly and scribal leaders, especially in Judea and Jerusalem, who consistently reject Jesus. “The Lamb of God” is not a major or controlling concept for John, contra many. Chapter 2:4 could mean that the problem of no wine is a small one and easily fixed, thus explaining Mary’s response in verse 5. Eternal life is qualitatively different from the life of this world, but it is also unending. Jesus alternately says that he judges (9:39) and that he doesn’t (12:47), but his point is that he does only what the Father delegates to him (5:22). More tellingly, salvation in the Fourth Gospel “comes solely on God’s initiative,” while “those who are ‘judged’ bring the judgment on themselves” (p. 313). The “rivers of living water” in 7:38-39 are both Christological and pneumatological. The debate between universalism and particularism in 12:32 is best solved by recognizing “not that every human being is ‘drawn,’ but that all those drawn by the father are drawn by the Son” (p. 700). Against the concept of merely corporate election in 13:10, Michaels observes, “the notion that a corporate unit. . .is ‘clean’ or ‘clean all over’ is a mere abstraction unless the same is true of each person in its number” (p. 733). There is functional subordination in the Trinity in John’s Farewell Discourse (chs. 14-16) even if ontological equality. Self-sacrificial love forms the heart of the Godhead’s mission and the disciple must follow suit. The inward-looking community-oriented focus of Jesus’ high priestly prayer is for outwardly directed, evangelistic purposes (ch. 17). The Passion narrative is uniquely dominated by Jesus’ authority right through to his final expiry. The resurrection becomes in John the occasion for the bestowal of the Spirit, the Paraclete, who now takes on the fully personal functions predicted of him in the Farewell Discourse.
A handful of typos dot the text, usually of the kind that spellcheckers don’t catch and that didn’t appear in books nearly as often as they do now in our digital age (e.g., the doubling of “the” before “light of the world” on p. 55; the lack of the article in “one side of lake of Galilee” on p. 340; “Jesus brief discourse” missing the apostrophe on p. 367; “having spoke” on p. 397; “one who remain forever” on p. 702; “and if go off, I am coming back” on p. 771; “if the world hate you” on p. 790; and “strains credulity” on p. 1055). The first Greek quotation in note 146 on page 335 should end in ΘEOY, not ΘYOY. The aba structure in 3:31 is merely an inclusion, not a chiasm (p. 222), which would require at least four elements (abba).
A brief review can scarcely do justice to the rich detail of over a thousand pages of commentary. Michaels’ prose is often expansive, and he frequently seems to delight in telling us each step by which he sorted out various exegetical options and finally arrived at his conclusions. Some of this should have been abbreviated so as to make the text manageable for a larger number of readers. But for those who will wade through it all, there is a treasure trove of guidance for interpreting the canonical form of the Fourth Gospel. Theology and literary artistry are highlighted superbly. Issues related to historicity and historical backgrounds, more often than not, will have to be sought in other works. I will thus still pick up Köstenberger or Carson first for the most well rounded and accessible treatments of the Greek and English texts of John, respectively. But I will always want to consult Michaels for supplemental insights.
Craig Bomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament