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: Grant R. Osborne, John: Verse by Verse

Osborne, Grant R.  John: Verse by Verse. Osborne New Testament Commentaries; Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2018. 542 pp.; Pb.  $19.99  Link to Lexham Press

This short commentary on the Gospel of John by Osborne is part of his series from Lexham Press published simultaneously in both print and electronic Logos Library editions. Six commentaries were published in 2017 (Romans, Galatians, Prison Epistle, Revelation) with three more due in 2018 (Luke, Acts, 1 & 2 Thessalonians).

In the introduction to the commentary, Osborne argues for the traditional view John the apostle is the single author of the fourth Gospel. He also adopts the traditional view that the beloved Disciple is the author of the book, John. Although there are some other suggestions (Lazarus, a fictional character), Osborne does not find the objections sufficient to overturn the traditional view. Nor does he accept the once-popular “Johannine circle” view made popular by Raymond Brown. For Osborne, John was a brilliant writer who carefully constructed his Gospel to simply present the gospel of Jesus, but with a depth and complexity which is unrivaled in the New Testament. Osborne dates fourth Gospel dates to the early A.D. 80s from Ephesus. He argued in his Revelation commentary John the apostle also wrote Revelation in the early 90s from Patmos.

With respect to the purpose of the Gospel, Osborne is persuaded by the recent discussion among Gospels scholars dismissing the idea that the Gospel writers addressed issues within their own local communities. Rather, the Gospels were written for the church as a whole. Osborne sees John’s Gospel is particularly evangelistic, citing John 20:31 as primary evidence. He also points out the frequency of salvation language (faith, believe, eternal life, truth, etc.)

Osborne briefly comments on the historical reliability of the Gospel of John in his introduction, but often deals with John’s reliability in the body of the commentary. Even in the early church John was considered to be a “spiritual gospel.” Historical reliability is a problem for Johannine studies since John’s Gospel is so different than the Synoptic gospels. For example, in Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus’s Temple action takes place in his final week, but it occurs early in John 2:13-25. Although this seems like a singular event, Osborne accepts the recent suggestion from Craig Blomberg that Jesus made two protests in the Temple, one early in his career and a second one in his final week (p. 66). For Osborne, the emphasis on chronology in the fourth Gospel indicates it comes from an eyewitness who was interested in writing an accurate account of Jesus’s ministry.

The body of the commentary is divided into twenty-nine chapters following the outline in commentary’s introduction. Since one of the goals of the commentary series is to provide study notes for devotional reading or a small group Bible study, each chapter is limited to about fifteen pages. Although the series is subtitled “a verse by verse commentary, it is almost impossible to comment on every verse for a book the length of John and retain Osborne’s goal of a readable book for a small group. Usually his comments are on whole paragraphs, and this is almost always sufficient. There are some sections which need a word-by-word study (John 1:1-3, 3:16, for example).

Osborne includes a bibliography of important John commentaries he has used in the preparation of the commentary, but he rarely cites these secondary works and footnotes are used for additional information or cross-references (and are also quite rare in the book). This is not to say Osborne has not read widely on John. The simple, readable style of the commentary precludes the kind of detailed interaction expected in an exegetical commentary. He occasionally refers to the Greek text, but words appear in transliteration. Specialized vocabulary appearing in the glossary are printed in bold. Each chapter ends with a summary drawing theological and practical implications from the text.

Conclusion. As with the other commentaries in this series, Osborne’s Verse-by-Verse Commentary will serve pastors and teachers as they prepare sermons on the text of the Bible. Osborne certainly achieves his goal of helping pastors to “faithfully exposit the text in a sermon.” Although scholars may find the brevity of the commentary frustrating, this commentary will be an excellent guide for anyone who desires to read John’s Gospel with more insight and understanding.


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

Book Review: Bruce, F. F. The Gospel of John (Eerdmans Classic Biblical Commentaries)

Bruce, F. F. The Gospel of John: Introduction, Exposition, Notes. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2018. 425 pp. Pb; $32.   Link to Eerdmans

This commentary on John by F. F. Bruce is not new, but it is the first of nine commentaries in the new Eerdmans Classic Biblical Commentaries series. Some of these Classic commentaries were NICNT volumes replaced by new commentaries (Verhoef was replaced by Mignon Jacobs, Murray on Romans was replaced by Douglas Moo, for example). Eerdmans recognizes the ongoing value of these older commentaries and modern printing technology makes it is possible for publishers to keep older works in print. As the series preface observes, these commentaries have been used by pastors, teachers, seminary students, and are cited literary thousands of times by later works.

Eerdmans plans to republish these the following commentaries by the end of the year:

  • The Books of Haggai and Malachi, Pieter A. Verhoef
  • Romans (Shorter Commentary), C. E. B. Cranfield
  • The Epistle to the Hebrews, F. F. Bruce
  • The Epistle to the Romans, John Murray
  • A Commentary on the Revelation of John, George Eldon Ladd
  • The Gospel of John, Herman Ridderbos
  • The Epistle to the Romans, Leon Morris
  • John, Merrill C. Tenney

The first in the series is a 1983 commentary on the Gospel of John by F. F. Bruce. The text of the book is identical to the earlier edition so this is a true reprint rather than a second edition. Bruce had been studying the Gospel of John for more than thirty years when he wrote this book and now the book is another thirty years in the past. Although this means the bibliography is obviously out of date, few modern students of John’s Gospel interact with much of this secondary literature on John.

The body of the commentary offers short paragraphs on one or two verses at a time. Bruce provides his own translation of each verse and then comments on the text. Where Greek appears it is always transliterated. The minimal endnotes cite other major commentaries. In his preface, Bruce acknowledges his debt to C. H. Dodd and Barnabas Lindars appears often in the notes as well. One element of the commentary which may seem dated is the use of rabbinic sources in the endnotes. On a number of occasions Bruce cites the Talmud, the Exodus Rabbah, etc (p. 187, for example). In more modern commentaries these might be omitted since it is impossible to state that any given saying in these late sources has relevance for a first century Jewish context.

What is striking about the body of the commentary is how brief Bruce’s notes are. But this is the way commentaries were written at the time. It is refreshing to read a simple, well-written commentary which does not get bogged down in parallel literature, hunting for intertextual allusions or reception history. Also missing are homiletical pointers or attempts to “bridge the gap” between an ancient writer and a modern reader. This is what helps Bruce’s commentary to retain its value over the years. Bruce offers what is necessary to illuminate the text and allows the reader (pastor, teacher) develop appropriate application in their own context. It is refreshing to sit and read a commentary without the distraction of hundreds of notes to other literature. Although Bruce is not as minimal as J. B. Lightfoot’s John commentary, it will seem light to anyone who has read Craig Keener first. There is a place for the exhaustive commentary or for a commentary which traces reception history, or a commentary which closely studies Greek syntax and rhetorical features. It is, however, refreshing to read a clear and concise commentator like F. F. Bruce.

It is fair to question the relevance of a thirty year old commentary which has been replaced, but each volume of this new Eerdmans Classic Biblical Commentaries series is worthy of staying in print. Each generation of Bible student ought to have the chance to read the work of these scholars.


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: 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.