Top Five John Commentaries

Introduction. For someone who has spent most of their academic career in the Synoptic Gospels, John commentaries are a strange and undiscovered country. Commentaries on John do not have to dwell on syntax since the Greek is fairly straightforward. Rather, a commentary on John must wade through some of the most dense theological texts in the New Testament. Sorting through John’s possible influences (Jewish, Hellenistic, Gnostic) is something of a chore. In addition, there seem to be more high-quality commentaries on John than any of the gospels.

It was very hard to come up with a final five. Since I have been preaching through John, I have picked up a few more John commentaries. In fact, I would describe the last five years as a great time to be a Johannine scholar! Not only have several new and excellent commentaries been published, but Köstenberger and Marvin Pate have both published books on the theology of John and his letters. I had to leave a few off the list that I have used regularly and enjoyed.

Craig Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (2 Vol.; Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2003). Keener’s introduction to John runs 330 pages, then he tags another thirty pages of introduction to the prologue. This introduction ought to be required reading for anyone who wants to seriously study John. In fact, it should probably be separated from the commentary and sold separately as a monograph on interpreting John’s gospel. His section on the Jewish Context of John’s gospel (pages 171-232) is excellent. The body of the commentary deals with every imaginable aspect of the Greek text, drawing on the Hebrew Bible as well as the literature of the Second Temple Period. A scan through his footnotes demonstrates Keener’s mastery of both Jewish and Hellenistic literature. He deals with problems of historicity as well as special Johannine features in the body of the commentary. The main criticism of this commentary is related to its strengths – there is so much material here it is difficult to digest to all.

D. A. Carson, John (PNTC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991). This is a remarkably useful commentary on John for exegetical details. Carson states in the introduction that he does not intend to interact with all of the scholarship on John, but rather “a small representative part of the massive secondary literature on John.” In the body of the commentary he treats the Greek text well both in terms of lexical and syntactical issues. All Greek words are transliterated so the non-Greek reader will have no problem reading the commentary. Footnotes are rare, sources are cited in-text. Carson is best when he is comparing several options for understanding a text. In the end, it is always very clear what his view is! Of the five commentaries listed here, Carson is in the most likely to draw implications for systematic theology.

Frederick Bruner, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2012). At nearly 1300 pages, Bruner’s commentary on John is a massive contribution to the study of the fourth gospel. This is not an exegetical commentary. In fact, rarely will Bruner comment on a Greek word or a syntactical detail. Where this commentary excels is in the section labeled “historical interpretation.” here Bruner gathers trenchant comments from a wide variety of interpreters, from the church fathers to modern scholars. Some of these are the usual suspects (Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Brown, Schnackenburg, Bultmann), but often Bruner cites obscure scholars or preachers, sending me to Wikipedia for a little biography. One of the things I really like about this commentary is the list of key quotes from scholars which serve as an introduction to the interpretation. These are thought provoking and focus my attention on important aspects of the text fort preaching and teaching.

Craig Blomberg, Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel: Issues and Commentary (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2001). This is the more brief book on this list, about a quarter of the size of Bruner. Yet this book has been extremely helpful to me in working through the book of John. Blomberg’s goal is not an exegetical commentary, but rather to assess the value of John’s gospel as a contribution to the study of the historical Jesus. Usually John is left out of discussions of the historicity of Jesus because it is assumed the book was written late by someone who was far-removed from the eyewitnesses to the events of Jesus life, as a theological document rather than historical. Blomberg wants to read the stories in John and evaluate them on a historical level. What this means is that he places Jesus in the context of the Second Temple Period, and in the end, John’s gospel is very Jewish, John’s version of Jesus is very Jewish, and the story told in John is not as a-historical as is often assumed. This book is written in a non-technical tone and can be read by scholars, pastors, and laymen, yet is a valuable contribution to the study of the fourth gospel.

Andreas Köstenberger, John (BECNT; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2004). Of the five I have chosen, I have used Köstenberger the most over the last year as I prepared for my preaching on John. For the last year, this has been my “first off the shelf” commentary, although there are more detailed commentaries available. Like most of the BECNT series, each pericope begins with a synopsis of the section followed by a translation and exegesis. He deals with lexical matters int eh body of the commentary, syntactical issues tend to be placed in footnotes. Textual critical comments are covered (briefly) in the “additional notes” at the end of a pericope. Köstenberger’s commentary is excellent for its interaction with other literature on John. The footnotes are packed with detailed notes drawn from a wide variety of scholarship. Köstenberger does not have a conclusion to each pericope to draw out theological implications, this is done in the body of the commentary where necessary. For the most part, the theological results of his commentary are to be found in his Theology of John (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2009).

Conclusion. What have I left out? What commentaries on John have you found useful?  I have included no classic commentary on my list – let me know what I have missed!


Index for the Top Five Commentary Series


Introduction to Series on Commentaries

On Using Commentaries 

Matthew        Mark        Luke        John        Acts
Romans        1 Corinthians         2 Corinthians
Galatians         Ephesians        Philippians        Colossians
1-2 Thessalonians        Pastoral Epistles         Philemon
Hebrews        James         1 Peter         2 Peter & Jude 
Letters of John         Revelation

Conclusion:  Last Thoughts on New Testament Commentaries


27 thoughts on “Top Five John Commentaries

  1. Phil: “My” list on John Commemtaries, would be long and even somewhat older. I still like and value B.F. Westcott’s: The Gospel According To St. John, especially the Introduction. I also have an older book: The Spiritual Gospel, The Interpretation of The Fourth Gospel in the Early Church, M.F. Wiles (Cambridge, 1960), just a grand book on the interpretation of John and the Johannine!

    But I also really like J.Ramsey Michaels NICNT on John! (Eerdmans 2010)

  2. Good list, since I do not have Bruner, I would add Leon Morris work, I think it is better than its replacement (Michaels). For a classic I suggest F.Godet on John

    • Yes, Frederic Godet is always a good read! Note his Romans also! For me Morris is good, but his press of the literal idea of “propitiation” in Rom. 3:25, is flawed to my mind. See the Greek LXX here. “Expiation” (RSV) is much better, and more biblical. The idea there is “mercy-seat”!

      • I understand. You can appreciate someone and disagree on a point as you do with Morris. In John, Morris seemed so in awe of the Gospel he wrote of.

      • Indeed his John is profound! The Anglican Aussies of his stripe are still going strong! They are perhaps the most Evangelical Anglican core group! Note, the older historical T.C. Hammond set something of that pace!

    • I will admit to having Morris on my desk (it’s in the photograph, in fact!), and set him aside at the last minute. I think it is a tribute to his commentary that Carson and Kostenberger * constantly* refer to him!

  3. I would vote for Morris’s inclusion as well, though not necessarily in place of the ones you listed. Maybe there needs to be six titles on the list of top five commentaries?

    • My fault for sticking to five for the series, forces decisions to be made. On the other hand, that will help me out when I get to Titus or 2 Peter!

    • I am impressed. That thing is a beast! Tiny print and I swear the margins are extra small. Not handy, but quite useful.

  4. I’d definitely push for Ramsey Michaels, who is always fun to read. The NICNT volume is very big, so some may want to avoid it. If so, at least his NIBC volume deserves a look.

  5. Having just finished Volume One of Urban C. Von Wahlde’s three-volume commentary on the Gospel and letters of John (Eerdmans Critical commentary 2010) I can’t imagine doing any kind of study on John without referencing this set whether you disagree with it or not. UC von W describes three different editions of the gospel, the 2nd and 3rd being redactions. Most interesting is the early dates he assigns the editions, the first, for example, being as old or older than Mark, perhaps as early as the 50s. What I find of particular interest is following the developing theology and christology that emerges once the three editions are separated (from low to high to apocalyptic), and how the 2nd and 3rd editions relate specifically to the Letters and the question of authorship. The author offers you a very real glimpse at the riffs in the nascent church and how they sought clarification through a written and codified document.

    Now, I understand that many people consider this type of criticism to be counter-productive and prefer to deal with the final single edition of John as it is canonized. Having acknowledged that, no other study of John gets to the heart of its narrative strands as does this one.

    The commentary is remarkably easy to read, summarizing and recapping earlier arguments in such a way that you can open the book anywhere and start reading. UC von W even offers a strategy on how to read the commentary to get the most out of his arguments. The translation of the Gospel is printed in three different fonts for ease of recognizing the three different editions (four if you count the opening hymn).

    Overall I have to say this is one of the most engaging commentaries for the many questions it raises in this reader’s mind. I admit I seldom read commentaries cover to cover, but this commentary reads like a thriller and there were days when I couldn’t put it down. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but for those out there interested in form and redaction and digging deeply into the First Century psyche, this commentary might be for you.

    Happy Easter, 2016.

  6. I have found F.F. Bruce to be helpful ; his commentary is written at a popular level but can be a great aid to preachers. And, I have found Robert Mounce’s contribution in the Revised Expositor’s Bible Commentary set to be amazingly good for its brief length … about 300 pages. It’s bound up with the commentaries on Luke and Acts, which are also solid.

    • I consider anything by F. F. Bruce solid, worthy of purchase and frequent use. He is one of those commentators who always produces solid work regardless of the topic.

  7. Almost forgot to mention Herman Ridderbos’ Theological Commentary on John. Excellent!

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