Book Review: Ruth B. Edwards, Discovering John

Edwards, Ruth B. Discovering John: Content, Interpretation, Reception. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2015. 272 pp. Pb; $22.   Link to Eerdmans

This book joins Ian Boxall’s Discovering Matthew as the first volumes of a new (or rebooted) Discovering the Bible series from Eerdmans and SPCK. The series intends to be a “comprehensive, up-to-date and student friendly” introduction to the books of the Bible. Edwards originally published this book in 2003, so this is a second edition even if the fact is not noted on the cover the book. As Edwards comments in the preface to this second edition, in the ten years since the original Discovering John was published, a number of significant commentaries have appeared. She has attempted to update this second edition with as much as this new material as possible.

Edwards_Discovering John_wrk 03.inddThe book breaks into three sections. The first five chapters cover what is normally included in an introductory text (authorship, purpose, audience, place and date of composition, etc.), but also a short chapter on reading strategies for John’s gospel. Edwards’s study is based on the historical-critical method but she fully understands the contributions of literary, social, historical and religions settings for illuminating the text of John (22).

With respect to authorship, she weighs various views on the Beloved Disciple as the author, and concludes there no proof for any specific individual in early Christianity. He is not the author of the Gospel, but the person the author uses to enhance the reliability of the Gospel (32). She reviews the Johannine Community hypothesis and concludes the Gospel would have been produced in the context of a community, but this codes not imply the Gospel was intended only for that community (53). The Gospel was written sometime between 75-95 CE to a Jewish Christian community in Asia Minor or Syria.

With respect to the historicity of John’s Gospel, Edwards recognizes it is “a well-nigh impossible task” to find Jesus’ exact words even in the Synoptic gospels (43). John’s Gospel is not a historical archive of Jesus’ words and deeds, but a “dynamic interpretation of how the Gospel’s author(s) understood him in the light of the Holy Spirit’s guidance (44). More could be said on the cultural content of John’s Gospel as an accurate reflection of Jewish life and religious practice in the first half of the first century.

The next four chapters of the book deal with the Christology of John. First, miracles serve as a catalyst for faith in Jesus (60). Although Jesus is a healer and worker of miracles, John intends his readers to see Jesus as the inauguration of the new eschatological era (71). Second, there are a number of Christological confessions in the Gospel which serve as a kind of “narrative theology: reinforcing the signs (85). Each of the titles given to Jesus in the Gospel contribute to John’s Christology, culminating in Thomas’s “My Lord and My God” (John 20:28). Third, in the Passion and Resurrection narrative, Jesus is presented as willingly submitting to the cross as the means of his glorification (99). The cross is not a humiliation inflicted on Jesus, but the very reason he has come into the world. Fourth, Edwards discusses John’s prologue as a presentation of Jesus as the Word Incarnate. Jesus as Logos associations him with both Creation and Revelation; Jesus is the agent through whom all things were made as well as the agent of God’s revelation in the Gospel. As the Word of God incarnate, the “Only Son is the Father’s Exegete” (110). John 1:18 claims Jesus made known the Father, but as Edwards points out, the Son explains or interprets the Father, focusing on the verb exegoumai.

The final four chapters deal with some special issues in John’s gospel. First, Edwards surveys the characters in John’s story. She divides this into male and female disciples. Do the male disciples function as “ideals” or role models for the later church? Do they represent future Christian leaders and the rivalries of the early church? She concludes they do not, in fact, nothing in John connects Peter with “Jewish Christianity” or the Jews at all. The so-called rivalry between Peter and John is not an accurate portrayal of their relationship (119).

Edwards approaches the difficult problem of Anti-Semitism in John’s Gospel by first examining John’s use of the word “Jews.” Bultmann, for example, thought the term was always used for “representatives of unbelief.” Edwards does not think this can be sustained since not all Jews in the Gospel are “ignorant, deceitful and unbelieving” (134). Certainly the Gospel is confrontational and paints the Jews as Jesus’ opponents, but this is not unique to John’s Gospel either in the New Testament or in Second Temple Judaism (137-8). The Qumran community refereed to their rival Jews as “Sons of Darkness” who would be destroyed when the messiah comes. This sort of language is not anti-Semitic, but rather the language of the prophets.

A related issue is potential “Replacement Theology” in John’s Gospel. Jesus certainly challenges some aspects of Second Temple Judaism, but Edwards concludes he does not attack Jewish worship nor is there a clear replacement of Jewish practice with Christian practice. John depicts Jesus as a Jew and writes his Gospel in order to appeal to both Jews and Gentiles (148). More problematic is John’s claim that Jesus is God. There are hints throughout the Gospel that Jesus is divine, but they remain hints. The “I Am” statements, for example, may disclose who Jesus is, but that is not always obvious. John is not setting Jesus up as a separate deity who is a rival to the Jewish God (as if one should worship either the Jewish God or Jesus). As Edwards points out, John in not unique in the New Testament in calling Jesus God, both Paul and the writer of Hebrews refer to Jesus with divine language.

In the final chapter, Edwards suggests a number of reasons John’s Gospel has value for the Christian reader today. These short meditations attempt to draw on John’s Gospel as a source for “being Christian” today. The book concludes with two excurses, the first on the text of John, the second on the problem of “eyewitness” testimony in John.

Conclusion: Edwards’s introduction to John’s Gospel is a brief introduction to many of the key issues one encounters when studying the Fourth Gospel. She fairly presents major view on controversial topics without prejudicing her own view. This book would be an excellent textbook for a university or seminary class on the Gospel of John, but is written at a popular level so most readers will find it enjoyable. I look forward to future installments of this series (Discovering Genesis, Iain Provan and Discovering Romans, Anthony C. Thiselton are scheduled for 2016).

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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