This review appeared in the Jan-Mar 2009 vol. 166 no. 1 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.Subscribe Today
The Gospel of John: A CommentaryHendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA October 1, 2003
This commentary approaches the Gospel of John from a socio-historical perspective. Placing the Gospel in its first-century context is an obvious emphasis. Although its size appears intimidating, for a commentary on a book of twenty-one chapters the commentary proper is manageable. More than forty percent of its pages is introduction (pp. 1–330), bibliography (pp. 1243–1409) and four indexes (modern authors, subjects, Scripture and Old Testament Apocrypha, and other ancient sources; pp. 1411–1636).
The introduction could be an independent book. It includes all the traditional introductory discussions one expects to see in a commentary (i.e., genre, authorship, date, background, theology, special discussions unique to John, etc.). Its conclusions are generally traditional: the apostle John is the author; the book is dated in the 90s; the provenance and addressees’ location is Roman Asia (Ephesus or Smyrna). However, these conclusions are arrived at only after careful consideration of the evidence and often only marginally preferred to other options. This approach reveals the author’s familiarity with the issues and a cautious method driven by the evidence. The length of the introduction provides space to discuss many issues in detail.
The book opens with an in-depth discussion of the Gospel’s genre (pp. 3–52). Keener carefully navigates through issues of historicity, ancient genres, theological and literary elements, and demonstrates that although the Gospel of John is a literary work with theological reflection, it nevertheless is historically accurate and is probably a form of ancient biography. The commentary includes refreshing discussions of inspiration (pp. 115–22) and miracles (pp. 251–79). Also Keener spends extensive time developing the book’s social context (with an emphasis on the Jewish background; pp. 140–232 and throughout). This contributes to the overall value of the commentary’s focus on placing the Gospel in its first-century context.
Keener’s grasp of all types of ancient sources (papyri, literature, etc.) helps him understand the text. Care is generally taken to avoid drawing out more from these ancient texts than they can contribute to the interpretation of John. However, sources are often used without any reference to their date or critical discussion of their value for the Gospel of John. For example papyri are used to demonstrate that Samaritans were Hellenized, but no dates are given for the sources (p. 588 n. 31). Although Keener is careful to note that Xenophon and Homer are early and reflect ancient Greek practices, he uses them to illustrate customs in the Gospel of John (pp. 627, 1230). However, are Greek customs from hundreds of years earlier relevant for understanding a first-century Gospel that records events in Israel? In a similar vein does a discussion of table manners in, for example, eighteenth-century England contribute to the understanding of table manners in twentieth-century rural Texas? In both cases they may; however, this needs to be established.
Although scholars have been using background sources for a long time, there has been a renewed appreciation for their value and use in New Testament studies. The result is that this relatively new approach needs methodological refinement. To his credit Keener generally uses this material in a responsible manner. The concern is that for this work and others the reader who is unfamiliar with this material will be unable to judge its relevance for the Gospel.
This commentary is comprehensive and well documented, and it provides a helpful interpretation of the Gospel of John. In light of this it is difficult to criticize. However, there are a few omissions to note. First, more interaction with textual issues such as grammar would have helped tie the commentary closer to the text. Occasionally the helpful contextual information has a tendency to lead away from the narrative. This is inevitable as important issues are explored. However, grammatical discussion could help minimize this. Also some grammatical issues not discussed in detail would have enhanced various interpretations. Keener does not discuss the present tense in John 5:2 as contributing to the dating of the book or the passage’s interpretation. But this is a minor issue. More important is the lack of serious interaction with grammar in 1:1c (pp. 374–76). Keener devotes about two pages to this issue and his conclusion is sound. However, his argument could have been enhanced by a discussion of the clause structure and a distinction between definite, qualitative, and indefinite nouns. Also in light of the focus on the first-century context in this commentary, more interaction with the Roman imperial context would have been helpful. Keener does not ignore this context; however, it could be made more explicit. What is included probably reveals Keener’s belief about its influence on the book. He discusses the Book of Revelation throughout, which demonstrates a sensitivity to the Roman presence. In light of the pervasive presence of Rome throughout the empire, including Judea, which was ruled by a Roman governor, its impact is likely to have been felt by Jesus and His contemporaries. Additionally, if this was written from and/or to Roman Asia, life in the empire would have been a real issue to the readers (an observation Keener makes). In light of Tiberius’s use of the title “Son of God” on coins in Jesus’ lifetime, it is puzzling that Keener states that the use of “Son of God” terminology for emperors is “a sense certainly irrelevant at the beginning of the Jesus tradition” (p. 293). Keener acknowledges that this may have bearing on the interpretation of John and Revelation, but this is because of the situation of the original readers late in the first century, he thinks, not the original events recorded in John.
Two structural/editorial improvements would have enhanced the readability of this commentary. First, it would have been helpful to have the author’s own translation of the Greek text. Second, in light of the extensive background discussions, section summaries would have helped bring all the information together as they inform the specific interpretation of the text.
There are many excellent commentaries on John, including the contributions of Raymond Brown and D. A. Carson. Keener’s work joins and possibly surpasses these. The more one learns about the ancient context the better one can understand the biblical text. Keener provides the reader with a wealth of excellent material both to illuminate the Gospel of John and to enrich study of other New Testament literature.
—Joseph D. Fantin