John: Evangelist and Interpreter

Written by Stephen S. Smalley Reviewed By Leon Morris

This book is intended for theological students and they will find it a useful summary of much that has been written recently about John, as well as containing useful insights of the author’s own. Through the years Canon Smalley has given us some of the fruits of his wide reading in a series of articles in the periodicals (he lists a dozen of them in his bibliography). It is good to have this more sustained treatment of a great subject.

The writer begins by acquainting us with the state of the game in a chapter on the ‘new look’, after which he asks ‘Who was John?’ and proceeds to chapters on ‘How John Wrote’, ‘Why John Wrote’ and a couple on John as Evangelist and as Interpreter. The whole gives us an excellent introduction to current Johannine studies. The plentiful references to the literature will prove invaluable to the serious student. Canon Smalley is always judicious and calm in his assessment and does not readily jump to conclusions.

Indeed this very virtue is one of the defects of his book. On many occasions the evidence is amassed in quantity but without adequate explanation, so that the reader who does not know his way around the literature can tend to become confused. For example, there are fourteen lines on the mystery religions (pp. 44f.) in which reference is made to R. Schnackenberg, R. Reitzenstein, S. C. Neill, C. K. Barrett, the Eleusian mysteries, those of Adonis, Isis and Mithras, ‘contemporary pagan cults of initiation’, ‘the myth of a saviour god’, ‘cultic saviour figures’, etc. To those who know a little about the subject there is no problem, but for the student who is finding his way around it will be confusing. This is not a book for the beginner.

There is a further problem when the author’s caution leaves us uncertain where he stands on some issues. He has a good deal to say about historicity, for example, but it is not easy to see what he accepts as having happened. For example, ‘It is not impossible that the Cana story has an authentically historical base’ (p. 177). But to this John has added an incidental family story and a secular proverb (Jn. 2:10) which he links up with the words of the steward which heighten the miraculous element. What does Canon Smalley believe happened at Cana? I really do not know. Nor do I know what to make of frequent references to tradition and even early tradition, especially since early tradition ‘is not necessarily the same as genuine history’ (pp. 187f.).

Canon Smalley sees the Gospel as produced by a three-fold process: the Apostle John went to Ephesus and passed on to his disciples oral accounts of Jesus’ deeds and words. The first draft of the Gospel was produced by a disciple or disciples of John and after his death the Ephesian church published the finally edited version. There is thus room in the Gospel for a considerable amount of ecclesiastical opinion as well as genuine history.

This then is a book with much to offer. I could wish that the author’s opinions had come through more clearly at some points and I often wish a section had been expanded to make the position clearer. But I am grateful for what we are given and that is careful assessment of the basic Johannine questions, carried out with a full awareness of the writings of a variety of critics and with some valuable insights which Canon Smalley himself contributes.

Leon Morris

Ridley College, Melbourne, Australia