Book Review: Craig Keener, John (ZIBBC 2A)

Keener, Craig. John. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary 2A. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2019. 251 pp. Hb; $29.99.   Link to Zondervan

This new commentary from Craig Keener replaces Andreas Köstenberger’s John commentary in the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Ed. Clint Arnold, Zondervan, 2001). Unfortunately Köstenberger work contained “accidental plagiarism,” something Köstenberger himself has recognized. This led to the decision to remove Köstenberger’s commentaries from the Baker Exegetical New Testament Commentary (2004) and the ZIBBC.

The result of this is another Craig Keener commentary on John. His earlier commentary on the fourth Gospel (Hendrickson, 2003; now Baker Academic) was two volumes and 1242 pages of introduction and commentary, plus another 166 pages of bibliography and 225 pages of indices. The ZIBBC is much more concise at a mere 212 pages of introduction and commentary and 39 pages of endnotes and indices. As a result, this new commentary is a useful tool for laypeople and busy pastors who want to read the Gospel of John with added clarity.

Like other volumes of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary this commentary has only brief notes on the text, more than provided by a major study Bible. At the title of the series implies, the notes focus on cultural, historical, geographical, archeological, and literary backgrounds which may illuminate the text as one reads John’s Gospel.

As an example of a geographical note, Keener locates the pool of Bethesda (John 5:2) at the church of St. Anne’s in Jerusalem. The editors proved a photograph of the Jerusalem Temple model at the Israel Museum, an artistic reconstruction of the five-portico pool and a photograph of the remains of the pools as they appear to visitors today.

Throughout the commentary there are sidebars explaining cultural and theological issues. For example, Keener provides about a page of material on Second Temple Jewish mourning customs as the background for the mourners around the tomb of Lazarus (p. 114-15). He cites the Mishnah, the apocryphal book Judith and the pseudepigraphical book Jubilees. He provides two pages on the historicity of Jesus’s trial (p. 176-77), citing several texts from the Mishnah.

Keener frequently draws parallels to other Second Temple literature. As an example of literary background, on John 1:4 Keener points our Jewish teachers often associated life with wisdom, citing a series of Old Testament texts along with Baruch 4:1, Psalms of Solomon 14:2 and 2 Baruch 38:2. He includes a brief excerpt of each text since most readers will not have easy access to these books.

This short commentary on John provides the reader with sufficient background material for reading John’s Gospel in the context of the Second Temple period world. Advanced readers will find it too brief, but there are enough footnotes to point interested readers to more in-depth resources. Keener’s commentary will serve well as a supplement to personal Bible study or a small group setting.

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

Published on May 16, 2019 on Reading Acts.

Book Review: Michael J. Buckley, What Do You Seek?

Buckley, Michael J. What Do You Seek? The Questions of Jesus as Challenge and Promise. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016. 158 pages; pb. $18.00   Link to Eerdmans

This short monograph collects fourteen short meditations on questions asked by Jesus in the Gospel of John. Many of these questions are recognized as programmatic in the Gospel of John. For example, Buckley draws his title for the book from the first question Jesus asks in the book. In In John 1:35-38, the first words Jesus speaks in the book asks two disciples following him, “What do you seek?” The Gospel of John returns to this theme frequently as people seek something from Jesus (healing, living water, bread from heaven, etc.) In his final question in the Gospel Jesus asks Peter, “Peter do you love me?” (John 21:15-16). Jesus’s question demands a response just as the whole Gospel of John demands a response from its readers.

Buckley’s short reflections on the text focus on the challenge issued by Jesus’s questions. For example, his comments on Jesus’s question to Peter in 21:15-16 concern forgiveness. He devotes two chapters to questions asked in the passion narrative, “what shall I say, save me from this hour?” and “shall I not drink this cup?”) On occasion the meditation ranges far from the original intention, such as in John 2:3-4, when the wedding runs out of wine Jesus asks his mother, “What has this to do with us?” Buckley uses this question to address concern for the suffering and responding to those in need. Perhaps, but Jesus used the opportunity to reveal something about himself by providing wine at a wedding. When Jesus asks his disciples “how can we buy bread” (John 6:5), he reveals something about himself as “bread from heaven,” but Buckley develops an application from the text about the unpredictability of the power of God and our weakness in service. Since this book is devotional reading, these applications are inspiring and challenging even if they seem tertiary to the text.

The book is rich in allusions to classic literature (many citations of T. S. Eliot, Dostoyevsky), philosophy and especially classical of western spirituality (St. John of the Cross, Cardinal Newman) and a few nods to modern scholarship (Bultmann, Barth, and Raymond Brown). Buckley reflects his Roman Catholic background (pp 34-24, for example) but this is not at all distracting.

Readers will be challenged by Jesus’s questions and Buckley’s thoughts on these questions.

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

 

Book Review: John E. Johnson, Under an Open Heaven

Under an Open HeavenJohnson, John E. Under an Open Heaven: A New Way of Life Revealed in John’s Gospel. Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2017. 256 pp. Pb; $15.99. Link to Kregel

John Johnson has served as a pastor and a professor of Pastoral Theology at Western Seminary in Portland. This blend of experience serves him well as he presents thirteen conversations from the Gospel of John. Each chapter is a meditation on an encounter with Jesus in the fourth Gospel. Johnson uses this conversation to present the theology of John’s gospel in a personally challenging way. Some of the conversations are with seekers (Nicodemus and the woman at the well), people seeking healing (the blind men), and others with people antagonistic toward Jesus (his brothers and the Jews in John 8:30-59, even Pilate in John 18:28-19:11).

Johnson presents enough historical and cultural detail (although not exegesis) to set the story in its proper context. For example, he explains the Jesus’s unusual response to his mother in John 2:4 or the clear parallels between Nicodemus and the woman at the well, or the contrasts between the two blind men in John 5 and 9. But since his goal is not to write a fully researched commentary on John, many details are overlooked. For example, there is far more to say about the Feeding of the 5000 than “pointing to a better meal” (116), or the quantity and quality of the wine Jesus provides in John 2 than “Jesus can be so generous” (50). Still, Johnson’s goal is a devotional reading of the text, it is not fair to expect him to fully tease out all of the theological implications of John’s Gospel.

The thirteen chapters of the book read like sermons, with introductory illustrations drawn from pop culture or personal experience, and chapter sections with alliterative headings. He even cites Bob Dylan, which is always a plus. Since the book is written on a conversational level, it would work well in a small group environment or as personal devotional reading. Johnson has included a few questions at the end of each chapter to prompt discussion. Johnson also maintains a blog which touches on some of the topics in this book.

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

 

 

 

Book Review: David A. Lamb, Text, Context, and the Johannine Community (LNTS 477)

Lamb, David A. Text, Context, and the Johannine Community. LNTS 477; London: T&T Clark, 2014. 232pp. Hb; $110.00; Pb. $39.95 (2013), PDF eBook $27.95.   Link to Bloomsbury  

In this revision of his 2012 doctoral thesis at the University of Manchester, David Lamb evaluates Raymond Brown’s Johannine Community using recent insights from sociolinguistics, primarily genre and register. Few scholars have had an impact on a field within biblical studies like Raymond Brown, and although many of the details of his Johannine Community model have been challenged and abandoned, it is impossible to study the Gospel of John without taking into consideration his ideas.

lamb-johannine-communityThe first two chapters of Lamb’s book are a necessary overview of the “rise and fall” of the Johannine Community in scholarship. He begins his literature with Martyn, Culpepper and Cullman as precursors to Brown as well several scholars who developed the theory after Brown’s initial work. Wayne Meeks developed thesis that the Community was sectarian in nature, so that the Gospel is a “book for insiders” rather than a universal Gospel for all Christians. This is the direction of the work of Bruce Malina and Jerome Neyrey. Lamb gives significant attention to Edward Klink’s Sheep of the Fold (Cambridge 2007), calling it “the most sustained attack on the Johannine Community to date” (21). In this dissertation written under the supervision of Richard Bauckham, Klink argues there was no local audience for the Gospel of John. In fact, it is largely impossible to move from text to social location with any degree of certainty.

Most recent introductions to John’s Gospel will trace a similar history and then state the Johannine Community theory is less popular than it once was. Lamb surveys a series of scholars who have contributed to this erosion. This includes evangelicals like Morris, Carson, and Köstenberger who are more interested in traditional authorship of the Gospel of John as well as Richard Bauckham’s suggestion John is a gospel “for all Christians” rather than a narrow sectarian document.

The second chapter of this monograph presents Brown’s Johannine Community. It is not necessary to summarize the well-known development of Brown’s work here, but it is significant that Brown himself understood his reconstruction of a Johannine Community was only a “probability” (29), but one based on what he considered a scientific, critical foundation. Lamb is right to describe Brown as a faithful Catholic scholar who did his work in the spirit of modernism. Brown used the historical-critical method, including source and redaction criticism and was deeply suspicious of newer hermeneutical methods (43). Lamb suggests his use of these methods was tempered by his allegiance to the Catholic Church (54). His method did, however, employ a “two level” reading of the Gospel of John, so that the blind man in John 9 is “acting out the history of the Johannine Community” (42).

In order to critique Brown’s Johannine Community theory, Lamb employs a sociolinguistic method to better understand the relationship between text and context. The third chapter of this monograph therefore introduces the reader to sociolinguistics and defines key terms (genre, register, style and dialect). Genre refers to relatively stable forms of discourse. By “register” Lamb means the way language varies according to its social situation. For example, a scientific text has a different register than a religious text. By style Lamb refers to an author’s idiolect, the particular choice of words or grammatical features. By dialect Lamb choices of vocabulary according to the culture of the writer. It is the variety of language which may say something about the “context of culture” behind a text. After surveying several examples Lamb concludes that register analysis may help to define the “context of situation” of the Gospel of John as the well as the relationship between the implied readers of the text and the actual readers. That relationship will be “realized in terms of its tenor” (101).

Although Raymond Brown was reluctant to describe the community as secretary in, this is not been the case for other New Testament scholars. In his fourth chapter Lamb explores the idea of antilanguage, by which he means the way that he community defines or redefines terminology along sectarian lines. Wayne Meeks thought the Johannine community was sectarian, other scholars described as a “countercultural group.” If this is the case, then we ought to expect relexicalization of common vocabulary in order to create insiders and outsiders. For example, prisoners create new words or redefine old words in order to create an insider language that sets them apart from prison staff. Another example might be teenagers who regularly redefine words or use them in ways radically different than their parents’ generation. If this kind of antilanguage appears in the Gospel of John, then it is evidence the community was sectarian. But after examining some examples in the Gospel, Lamb finds this thesis to be unacceptable Although there are a number of words in John’s Gospel which contrast to spheres of existence (spirit above in contrast to flesh below), none of these are redefine nor are there examples of new vocabulary unique to the community. Lamb offers several suggestions to explain this. First, there is simply not enough data to a sociolinguistic method to achieve results in the Gospel of John. Second, even if there was antilanguage in the Gospel, it does not necessarily imply the readers were members of an “antisociety.” Even a dominant group uses “coded language” (141).

For Lamb, previous attempts to use sociolinguistics to the Gospel of John have been rigorous enough because these attempts are dominated by the assumption of a Johannine Community which is sectarian (145).  He therefore devotes his fifth chapter to the register of John’s Gospel. Lamb surveys the narrative asides in the Gospel since these are from the author, paying close attention to the possibility of new words created by the writer, speech functions and modulations of clauses, use of personal pronouns and vocative adjuncts. By assessing the use of these features, Lamb draws conclusions with respect to power, contact and affective involvement. Who holds the “power” in the relationship, the author or the reader? What is the level of contact between the two? The higher the affective involvement, the more likely the “context of situation” is a close-knit community.

In each of these three categories, neither the Gospel nor the Epistles imply a close-knit community. The author hold all the power and there is no evidence of contact in the narrative asides in the Gospel. There is some contact in 2 and 3 John, but this contact is slight in comparison to the rest of the Johannine literature. It is possible Ἀγαπητοί in 1 John implies some affective involvement, but Lamb considers this language was used for rhetorical value rather than implying a community. Lamb does not consider Τεκνία μου in 1 John, presumably this would also be considered a rhetorical device.

Does Lamb’s register analysis signal the death of the Johannine Community? As Lamb states in his concluding chapter, he has attempted to chart a course between historical criticism and literary methods, Brown himself was only interested in the former and was suspicious of the latter. He concludes Bauckham and Klink are correct, the audience of John’s Gospel is “broad and hard to define” and certainly not an introverted, sectarian community (203). For scholars who want to continue to use the Johannine Community hypothesis, they need to bear in mind the language of the Gospel is sociolect rather than idiolect and is targeted at a loose network of communities which may have formed around the Gospel.

Conclusion. David Lamb has employed what is for many a new method for understanding the “context of situation” behind the Gospel of John. Such literary methods are often arcane and create terminology which unnecessarily obfuscates. To his credit, Lamb develops his register analysis in a way which brings clarity to the ongoing discussion of the Johannine Community.

 

See also by review of Sonya Shetty Cronin, Raymond Brown, ‘The Jews’ and the Gospel of John: From Apologia to Apology (LNTS 504; T&T Clark 2015) and  my comments on the Johannine Community.

 

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

What Do the Seven Thunders Say in Revelation 10:3-4?

The Mighty Angel stands in his place and speaks.  The speech is described as the roar of a lion, and he is answered by the “seven thunders.” This description is significant for several reasons. It is the only place in Revelation where an angelic messenger speaks, but the words are not recorded.  Why is the shout described in this way, and not recorded?

First, thunder is a stock metaphor for divine speech. In the Hebrew Bible, the voice of God is often described in terms of thunderous noise (2 Sam 22:14/Psalm 18:3; Job 37:2-5). It is possible thunderous speech is related to the description of the Lord as the “lion of Judah” (Amos 1:2, 3:8). Occasionally angels have voices like thunder, such as 3 Baruch 11:4, and in The Odyssey, Zeus speaks like thunder.

3 Baruch 11:4 And while we were waiting, there was a noise from the highest heaven like triple thunder. And I Baruch said, “Lord, what is this noise?” And he said to me, “Michael is descending to accept the prayers of men.”

So he spoke in prayer, and Zeus the counsellor heard him. Straightway he thundered from gleaming Olympus, from on high from out the clouds; and goodly Odysseus was glad. (The Odyssey, 20.100-104).

Why are there “seven thunders?” Psalm 29:3-9 has a seven fold description of the voice of God as thunder (although the word “voice” is not repeated seven times.)  There is a rabbinic tradition that the voice of God was heard as seen thunders on Mt. Sinai (Exod. Rab. 28:6).

As John prepared to write the content of the words spoken by the thunders, a “voice from heaven” prevents him. John is told to “seal up the vision” and not write it down. The source of the voice is not identified and it is common in Revelation for John to hear an unidentified voice from heaven. Given the background texts where a divine voice sounds like thunder, perhaps this is the voice of God prohibiting John from writing what the thunders said.

apocalyptic-thunderstorm

The way the command is given is odd: he is told to seal up the vision (which would imply keeping it a secret), but also not to write anything down.  If he had not written the words, what is the point of also sealing the scroll?  There is a tradition in Jewish apocalyptic of a person being given revelation but forbidden to share it. David Aune suggested this ensures that prophet alone knows the information, making him “wiser” than his readers.  It was a mark of authenticity to hold back a little revelation from the readers, if you gave it all then perhaps there were skeptics.

So what did the seven thunders say? Obviously we cannot know since it is still a secret, but John may have been given another series of judgments like the seals, trumpets, and bowls. He was told not to record this series for some reason. Caird suggested the reason John is told not to record the content of the visions is that God “cancelled” the judgments out of his grace and mercy (Revelation, 126-127). This would mean there were four sets of seven judgments, one set was set aside, perhaps an allusion to the four sets of curses in Leviticus 26:14-46.