Book Review: J. B. Lightfoot, The Gospel of John: A Newly Discovered Commentary

Lightfoot, J. B. The Gospel of John: A Newly Discovered Commentary. Edited by Ben Witherington III and Todd D. Still. The Lightfoot Legacy Set 2; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2015. 317 pp Hb; $40.00.   Link to IVP

Last year IVP released the first of three newly discovered commentaries by the late nineteenth century scholar J. B. Lightfoot. In the forward to that volume Ben Witherington recounted how he discovered hand-written manuscripts several long-forgotten commentaries J. B. Lightfoot in the spring of 2013. IVP plans one more volume collecting Lightfoot’s notes on 2 Corinthians and 1 Peter.

Lightfoot JohnWhen I reviewed Lightfoot’s Acts commentary, I asked why would anyone care to read a lost commentary written by a scholar who died in 1889? For some modern readers, Lightfoot’s legacy has been forgotten.  But the mid-nineteen century, Lightfoot was considered one of the foremost scholars of his day. The editors of this book begin their introduction with the words of William Sanday: “No one could match Lightfoot for ‘exactness of scholarship, with the air addition, scientific method, sobriety of judgment and lucidity of style.’” His commentaries on the Galatians (1865), Philippians (1868) and Colossians (1875) are often reprinted and his work on the Apostolic Fathers was the standard until the Loeb edition by Krisopp Lake.

The forward to Lightfoot’s John commentary is nearly identical to the Acts forward and the Editor’s Introduction only adds three pages specific to Lightfoot on the Gospel of John. Witherington points out that Lightfoot had often lectured on John at Cambridge and was deeply concerned at the negative impact the higher criticism of F. C. Baur had on the study of John’s Gospel. Although it was unusual for a British scholar to be too concerned with German scholarship, Lightfoot read Baur and others seriously and sought to defend the authenticity of John’s Gospel against the protestant liberalism of his day.

For this reason the commentary includes a lengthy discussion of the external and internal evidences for the authenticity of John (pages 41-78) as well as two appendices reprinting articles published posthumously in Bible Essays (pages 205-66, external evidences, pages 267-325, internal evidences; Macmillan, 1904, reprinted by Baker, 1979). More than a third of this commentary is devoted to answering challenges to John’s authenticity by the Tübingen school popular in the late nineteenth century.

Unfortunately the body of the commentary only covers the first twelve chapters of John. After a short note on the meaning of Logos (pages 80-86), the commentary proceeds as does Lightfoot’s other published commentaries. He begins with a brief summary of the pericope followed by short notes on Greek words and phrases of interest. After this commentary, there are a few pages of notes on the Greek text itself, commenting on textual variants and suggesting solutions. As Hengel comments in his appendix to this book, Lightfoot’s academic method was based on the recovery of the text of early Christian writing (p. 333). Compared to modern commentaries (Keener on John, for example), the comments are indeed sparse.

There are at least two reasons for this. First, this is an unpublished set of notes, not a full commentary. If Lightfoot had intended to finish this commentary, the notes would have been expanded, although not as much as demanded by modern commentary buyers. Second, commentaries produced in the latter part of the nineteenth century focused on helping a scholar to read the Greek text of the Bible. Notes on textual variations and translation issues were the stuff of commentaries, with little or no interest in historical background or theology. Lightfoot was not uninterested in those issues, but the commentary was not the place to deal with background or theological issues.

Perhaps the most interesting section of this commentary is a reprinted article by Martin Hengel on Lightfoot and German scholarship on John’s Gospel” (p. 326-58). Originally printed in the Durham University Journal (1989) on the occasion of the centenary of Lightfoot’s death. As Witherington points out, Hengel himself was a historian and linguist at Tübingen, although he was far more sympathetic to Lightfoot’s views than F. C. Baur. Hengel offers a brief history of David Strauss and F. C. Baur and their approach to the Gospels, especially John. Baur famously dated the book to about A.D. 170. For Baur, Valentianian, Montanism and Gnosticism were “historical background” to the Gospel of John (p. 329).

By the time Lightfoot entered Oxford’s Trinity College in 1847, the influence of the Tübingen School was at its height. Baur would outlive Lightfoot by 8 years. Lightfoot’s work on the Apostolic Fathers was considered a “nail in the coffin” of Tübingen (p. 336) and his excursus on Paul and James in his Galatians commentary “the most important contribution to the Tübingen controversy” (337). Lightfoot did not engage in polemics, but built a positive argument for the authenticity of John, as is evidenced by the detailed material in this commentary.

Hengel’s essay also includes an assessment of Lightfoot’s influence on scholarship in England. Some considered him a representative of unbelief on par with Voltaire and some compared him to the antichrist (p. 352)! Ironically his commentary on John is now published by an evangelical publisher and Lightfoot is presented as a premier biblical scholar who stood against the inroads of protestant liberalism of his day. Hengel points out that Lightfoot not only remained a faithful member of the Church and “wore himself out” serving as both bishop and scholar (p. 342). It is a sad commentary on attacks on real scholarship done within the church by conservative Christianity in both the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries. Perhaps this is the best reason to read Lightfoot’s commentaries today.

Conclusion. Like Lightfoot’s newly discovered commentary on Acts, this commentary is a valuable contribution to the history of scholarship on the Book of John. In some ways it is dated since few scholars would argue along with Baur today that John is the product of the late second century. Yet Lightfoot’s model of Christian scholarship is important for a new generation of students of the Bible.

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

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.

Jesus’ Humility at the Last Supper

When Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, he is preforming a parabolic act. As with parables, we need to understand the context in order to understand what Jesus was trying to teach through the washing of his disciples’ feet.

It is well-known that hospitality in the ancient world included foot-washing. Since virtually all travel was by foot, a visitor should be allowed to “refresh themselves” when they arrive by washing their feet. If the host had servants, the task of washing the guest’s feet fell to the lowliest servant. For a Jewish family, the task would be assigned to a Gentile slave (Köstenberger, John, 405). In this case, Jesus takes off his outer clothes and wraps himself in a long towel and does the job of the lowliest slave.

Since this is a Passover meal, it is likely that each of the disciples have washed their hands ceremonially before touching the food of the meal. My guess is that the feet would need to be washed since the are most likely to have come into contact with uncleanliness, the slave who washed the feet would therefore himself be unclean.

This is therefore a shocking act by a Jewish teacher prior to the Passover meal. Jesus’ humble service of his disciples is an illustration of how the disciples are to continue his work after the resurrection.

Said R. Joshua b. Levi, “All acts of labor that a slave performs for his master, a disciple of a sage performs for his master, except for removing his shoe.” b. Ketub. 96a (Neusner, b. Ketub. 11:1, I.2.A; 9:440)

Jesus is due the titles Teacher (Rabbi) and Lord. Even if we take the title Lord as equivalent to sir, both titles put Jesus well above the disciples socially. In a teacher-student relationship of the Second Temple Period, there was little a teacher could not ask his disciple to do for him. Yet Jesus reverses cultural expectations by doing an extremely humbling service for his disciples.

This is a pattern for the disciples to follow (v.15). The noun used here (ὑπόδειγμα) has the sense of a pattern, or model used for moral instruction. Jesus is saying this is an illustration of how you are to serve one another. This is not a pattern to be followed for worship, for example. Although there is nothing particularly wrong with practicing foot-washing in some Christian denominations, it is not an ordinance like the Lord’s Supper. To me this is analogous to saying the Lord’s Prayer. It is not particularly wrong, but misses Jesus point when he gave the prayer of an illustration of how to pray!

How do we serve as Jesus did? First, Jesus did not insist on his titles and honors. Ideally, Peter ought to have served Jesus, but Jesus radically reverses expectations and serves those who are socially lower than himself. If the Lord (and God) of the universe can get down on his hands and knees to wash the feet of those who owe him honor and loyalty, how ought we to serve?

Second, notice that he washes all the disciples’ feet, including Judas. He knew that Judas was the betrayer, yet he extended to him the same humble service that he gave the other “loyal” disciples. Jesus knew that Satan was about to enter Judas and he knew exactly what Judas was about to do, but he treated him in exactly the same way he did Peter or John.

That is remarkable to me. I have no problem humbly serving my family or my church family. But what about those who are outside the church? There are people who are outside of my normal circle who I do not serve, in fact, I sometimes treat them with contempt.

Jesus did not, he died for them as well.

L. Scott Kellum, Preaching the Farewell Discourse

Kellum, L. Scott. Preaching the Farewell Discourse: An Expository Walk-Through of John 13:31-17:26. Nashville: B&H, 2014. 350 pp. Pb; $29.99.   Link to B&H Academic.

Rather than a commentary on John 13:31-17:26, this book is a primer for expository preaching. Kellum laments the “unmistakable and disturbing gap between our hermeneutics and is preaching” (p. 5). While there are excellent books on either homiletics or hermeneutics, rarely does a handbook intended for students include both a hermeneutical method and homiletical practice.

Kellum, Preaching John

Many preachers assume that they are doing exposition because they are preaching through a book of the Bible. Kellum suggests this is a mistake since it is entirely possible to “dismember the application of the passage” through poor exegesis. Even if someone preaches through a whole book of the Bible, they may not be doing “expositional preaching.” I have heard many sermons based on a passage of Scripture having little to do with what the text was actually saying. Usually, the sermon was topical, with only a slight nod to the passage.

Kellum’s goal in this book is to move from text to sermon. In order to do this, he traces a basic hermeneutical strategy in his introductory chapter. Beginning with the reading of the text, he describes how to identify the genre and shows how proper identification of genre assists in the exposition of a text. He encourages pastors and preachers to make their own “pragmatic translation of the text,” including observation of textual variants. While a pastor should not discuss textual variants from the pulpit, a good preacher will inform his congregation of these matters in another teaching environment. Kellum only briefly discusses word studies, making the usual sorts of warnings about avoiding cognates, anachronisms, and using the whole range of a word. He offers an example of a proper Greek word study used to illustrate the meaning of the text (p. 20).

With respect to historical context, Kellum suggests the expositor investigate the original writer’s perspective and the writer’s “mindset.” Backgrounds can be as dangerous as word studies. For example, it is a mistake to find Gnostic ideas in Colossians. He, therefore, encourages the expositor to investigate the cultural environment and relevant political civil, and religious institutions primarily to illuminate the text. Kellum briefly describes setting a particular text into a canonical context focusing on where the particular story fits into the overall plot of the Bible, which he calls covenant dimensions.

To prepare to proclaim a passage from the pulpit, he suggests identifying the “main idea of the text” (MIT). Once a simple statement of the main idea is clear, this MIT is converted to the “main idea of the message” (MIM). After identifying the main idea of the text and the main idea of the message, the expositor should begin to find illustrations and applications for the text. I suspect many preachers find a good illustration first, then look for a good passage to preach from. Concerning illustrations, Kellum first suggests other biblical texts. He does encourage personal anecdotes, observations, news reports, biographies, historical allusions and finally, statistics. He warns about the overuse of statistics as illustrations since these are often skewed and intended to create some sort of fear in the hearer’s mind.

Chapter 2 of this book is a highly detailed approach to analyzing the literary structure and flow of the passage. He begins at the book level by examining the whole outline of the book of John. Once the preacher has determined a passage to preach on (in this case, the Farewell Discourse), Kellum describes how to determine the boundaries of the passage using conjunctions, indicators of time and space, summary statements, rhetorical questions, etc. He describes this as a “point of departure.” After determining the boundaries, he offers a highly detailed linguistic flow chart to track the movements of the passage. This looks like discourse analysis, similar to Steve Runge and the new Zondervan Exegetical Commentary series.  While Kellum says this method helps track the flow of the text, I find it extremely difficult to follow and may not yield the same level of results for me as it does for Kellum.

After laying this hermeneutical and homiletical background, Kellum offers a chapter overviewing the farewell discourse. Chapters 4 through 7 of the book constitute examples of his method applied to particular sections of the Farewell Discourse. First, he examines John 14, “commands that comfort,” then John 15-16:4c, “Commands that unite.”  In his third unit, Kellum describes the “advantages of Jesus’s departure” (John 16:4-33) and Jesus’ final prayer (John 17).

Each chapter offers an example of “relational structure” for the passage, demonstrating the method Kellum developed in his second chapter. Following this chart, he provides a brief analysis of the text to indicate the limits of the section. He then steps through the text, making brief interpretive comments. This is not a full commentary but is intended to be an example of how an expositional sermon might deal with some of the details of the text. Finally, Kellum outlines each unit in a “sermon sketch.” Here is the “main idea of the text” and “the main idea of the message.” A brief introduction and a sermon outline. He occasionally includes illustrations (although there are more in the appendix to the book) and a conclusion to the sermon. As Kellum makes clear in the introduction, these are examples of how an expositional sermon might develop a text and should not be confused with a critical commentary. He is not claiming these sermons are the only way to approach the text but are the results of his own prayerful study of the text following the method outlined in the book’s first two chapters.

Kellum concludes his book with two appendices. First, he lists the tools an expositor needs to prepare for the study of any text. Kellum offers his opinion on English Bibles and other language tools, Bible encyclopedias, dictionaries, atlases, introductions, chart books, and commentaries. He briefly comments on both Systematic and Biblical theologies and other communicator tools. For example, most public speakers want to have access to a good dictionary to use words properly. However, he warns there is nothing more irritating than someone saying, “Webster defines righteousness as…” I agree wholeheartedly: a Greek lexicon for biblical words, not an English Dictionary (p. 233). He concludes the section by offering some comments on using the Internet and some warnings for using Wikipedia. Most of these are relatively common sense. I found it interesting he included a valuable resource such as Google Books since it contains many older commentaries which may be used freely. As the author warns, many of these commentaries are quite old, limiting their value to the expositor.

He briefly comments on choosing a Bible program such as Logos, BibleWorks or Accordance. He warns that several mistakes and expositors can make when using Bible software. First, do not think Bible software is perfect. They all rely on human data entry, and mistakes can be made. Second, language tools are useless unless you know the basics of grammar. Knowing a verb is in the aorist tense is of no help whatsoever if you don’t know what the aorist tense is. “Being unfamiliar with the program’s terminology might result in bizarre heresies.”  He also warns about being satisfied with a single search. Computer programs can only search what you tell them to search, so some skill is needed to know how to use a program.

The second appendix is “a sermon series through the farewell discourse.” This appendix is almost 100 pages in includes sermon outlines, the main idea of a text, the main idea of the message, introductions, conclusions, and suggested illustrations useful for preaching through this section. Kellum has written out the introductions and conclusions fully, but hopefully, no one will read these verbatim as part of their own sermons. They intended as a model for how to do expositional preaching. I found this appendix strange since it often reproduces the text verbatim from the book’s main chapters. For example, the outline on page 156 is identical to the outline on page 283; the only differences I can see are the illustrations. Perhaps there is a better way to present this material that does not increase the size and cost of the book.

Kellum concludes with a select bibliography helpful in studying the book of John and several hermeneutical texts. Like his appendix on basic tools, this section is a kind of ‘buyer’s guide” for seminary students. This “expository walk-through” will be helpful in a homiletics class, but any pastor or teacher who wants to polish their expositional skills will profit from reading this book.


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


Jesus Wept?

Why does Jesus weep in John 11:35? The crowd assumes it is because his friend Lazarus died. Jesus has a typically human emotional reaction to death. But most commentaries point out the vocabulary used to describe Jesus’s emotions go beyond sorrow. Although most modern readers see this phrase a demonstration of Jesus’s tender and compassionate heart, the verbs translated “Jesus Wept” in John 11:33 have the connotation of indignation and anger.

C. K. Barrett says the view that Jesus was angry “beyond question” (John, 399). Beasley-Murray argues the verb ἐμβριμάομαι  should be read as“became angry in spirit” (John, Second Edition, 192-3). That Jesus is moved “in his spirit” is an indication this is a deeply internal emotional reaction.

Jesus WeptThe second verb in John 11:33 is ταράσσω, a verb associated with deep turmoil and In the next chapter, Jesus will use the same word to describe his spirit prior to the passion events (John 12:27). In Matthew 14:26 it is used to describe the terror felt by the disciples when the disciples saw Jesus walking on the water. In Luke 24:38 the verb describes the terror of the disciples when they encountered the resurrected Jesus. In each cases, there is a feeling of dread since a sinful person is encountering a divine being.

Whatever the combination of these terms means, it cannot be said Jesus was shaken by the death of Lazarus since he had predicted it. We cannot say he is expressing emotions similar to Mary and Martha, who are mourning their dead brother. Jesus knows he will raise Lazarus from the dead so his tears are unlikely sorrow over Lazarus’s death.

A slight variation of this view is Craig Keener who suggested Jesus was angry at the unbelief of the mourners (John, 846). Raymond Brown suggested Jesus was angry at Satan and the domain of death itself, or possibly Jesus is angry “at death” in general (John, 203).

When Jesus does weep, it is not the same as Mary and Martha, or the other mourners. They are “wailing” (κλαίω), while Jesus “weeps” (δακρύω). The word is rare, appearing only a few times in the Greek Old Testament (for example, Job 3:24, Job’s tears). I am not sure there is enough evidence to say Jesus’s tears were more or less sorrowful based on vocabulary. John simply varied the terms in order to avoid repetition (as he does elsewhere in the Gospel).

A better way of looking at Jesus’s frustrated emotional response is to see it in the light of Mary and Martha’s lack of understanding that he is the “Resurrection and the Life” and their apparent unbelief in his status as the giver of Life. Jesus just told Mary and Martha he is the resurrection and the life. Rather than some distant eschatological resurrection in the future, Jesus is about to demonstrate his power over life and death. But none of the disciples seem to understand this!

The power of the coming age is present in Jesus’s ministry.  But even the closest disciples do not fully understand who he is until after the resurrection. So, “Jesus wept.”