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
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