The Gospel of John

Written by J. Ramsey Michaels Reviewed By Murray J. Harris

This massive commentary is the net result of five decades of teaching and writing in the area of Johannine studies by the professor emeritus of religious studies at Missouri State University. We find evidence of Michaels’s longstanding specialization in this area in the twelve articles he authored that dealt with aspects of the Fourth Gospel, ranging from 1966 to 2004. One senses a certain relief in his bringing this magisterial work to completion in his retirement, after his smaller commentaries on John (his Good News Commentary of 1984, based on the GNB, and his New International Biblical Commentary of 1989, based on the NIV). It is a privilege to sit at the feet of an inspiring specialist and catch his infectious enthusiasm for the text itself. Scholarly theories about the text flourish and fade but the text is permanently luxuriant. Interestingly, he found Bultmann’s commentary to be the most useful, not because of that scholar’s theories about source, redaction, and displacement, far less his overall rejection of the Gospel’s theology, but because of his acute attention to detail and his perceptiveness in reading the Gospel as it stands.

While the Introduction is relatively short (42 out of 1,058 pages of text), it includes the standard issues of authorship (the author’s anonymity is “both conspicuous and deliberate,” p. 24), date (? 70–100 AD, p. 38), location (“there is no way to be certain,” p. 38), structure (“Structure in John’s Gospel . . . is largely in the eye of the beholder,” p. 37), and relation to the Synoptic Gospels (“much of what is implicit in the other three Gospels becomes explicit in John,” p. 30). In fact, he recommends that this Introduction be read last, just as he wrote it after finishing the commentary itself.

The four brief pages on “Theological Contributions” to NT theology focus on two matters: (1) the pervasive emphasis on “Jesus as God’s unique Envoy or messenger, simultaneously claiming for himself both Deity and obedient submission to Deity” (p. 39) and (2) the role of God the Father as the initiator and goal of Christian salvation. This role, he believes, “is rarely noticed or appreciated by interpreters” (p. 39). People believe in Jesus as a result of being “born of God” or “born from above.” God is working in a person’s life before that person “believes’ or “comes to the Light” (cf. 3:21; 6:37, 44, 65; 9:3). “Those who, in Emily Dickinson’s words, ‘choose the Envoy—and spurn the groom’ have failed to understand the Gospel of John” (p. 42). There is, I believe, a similar tension in NT theology as a whole and in Paul’s theology in particular, where the “center” or coordinating theme seems to be not the person and work of Christ, as fundamental as they are, but God the Father’s salvation through his Son and his Spirit.

Each section is headed by Michaels’s own translation, which well reflects the simple directness of John’s Greek style, with its avoidance of artificial rhetorical flourishes, sophisticated vocabulary, and long complex sentences. Reading Michaels’s exegesis of verses or passages generally regarded as both difficult and important (such as 1:18, 29; 5:18; 12:39–41; 14:28; 20: 17, 22), I found his treatment to be always insightful and creative even if not always totally convincing. He constantly probes the text with original questions and graciously interacts with alternative views. Commendably, he is not hesitant to break with exegetical tradition. For example, he speaks of a “preamble” (1:1–5) rather than of a “prologue” (1:1–18) and of “the light” rather than “the Word” as the major theme in that preamble (p. 45). As for John 21, he observes that “the transition between John 20 and 21 is not inconsistent with other narrative transitions in the Gospel” (p. 1024), noting the repeated phrase “all these things” (meta tauta) in 5:1; 6:1; 7:1; 21:1.

Not all evangelical readers will be satisfied with Michaels’s stance on the question, “Does the Gospel of John put words in Jesus’ mouth?”: “Perhaps so, though not as often as some might think, and when I conclude that it does, my job as a commentator is to leave them there” (p. xii). But few will disagree that in this Gospel there is an inextricable blend of historical reminiscence and theological reflection.

The reader will not find here a comprehensive bibliography on this Gospel (Keener’s commentary provides that), or detailed analyses of key terms (such as Brown’s commentary gives), or an overall discussion of historical issues (for this see C. L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel [Downers Grove: IVP, 2001]), although there are full indexes of subjects, Scripture references, and early extrabiblical literature. But if one wishes an up-to-date, creative but careful exegesis of a given passage, with copious cross-references to other Johannine and biblical passages, there will not be disappointment. With its greater length and detail, this volume has an edge over other recent non-technical commentaries on John such as those by Lincoln, Borchert, Whitacre, Köstenberger, Beasley-Murray, Moloney, and Witherington—what an embarrassment of riches we now have! In Michaels’s most recent contribution to the study of the Fourth Gospel we are offered a balanced, nourishing, and very generous meal of Johannine fare, prepared by a master chef and served up appetizingly. Enjoy the meal!

Murray J. Harris

Murray J. Harris
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Professor Emeritus)
Cambridge, New Zealand

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