Book review: The Gospel of John

Anvil journal of theology and mission

David F Ford, The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021)

by Howard C Bigg, Cambridge

This long-awaited commentary does not disappoint. One commentator calls it a feast, and so it is. This commentary is unusual in that it is not the work of a New Testament scholar. The author was, before his retirement, Regius Professor of Divinity in the University of Cambridge. He has been working on the book for twenty years and acknowledges the many individuals and institutions who have helped to shape his thinking. As I am personally acquainted with the author, however, and have heard him speak on various occasions, I can say unequivocally that this is the author’s voice.

What kind of commentary is it? It began life as a contribution to the Westminster John Knox Belief series aimed at a broad readership in churches of many traditions, but more broadly anyone in varied cultures who “is open to an intelligent faith that engages… with the Bible and with the contemporary world”(p.xi). When the commentary grew too large to be accommodated within that series, it was taken on by Baker Academic.

The commentary is organised devoting a chapter to each chapter of the Gospel. It is based on the English text of the NRSV, but Ford’s fluency in Greek enables him to focus on particular words helpfully transliterated. The introduction poses the questions Why John? Why now? It is important to read it because Ford surveys a number of essential matters, chiefly the all-important question of the identity of Jesus in John’s Gospel. He also draws attention to how John envisages an ongoing drama in the lives of Jesus’ disciples and those who will be drawn to believe through their testimony (cf. John 20:31). Ford believes that John knew the synoptic Gospels, but his post-resurrection stance leads him to make use of traditional material in a thoroughly Johannine manner (e.g. the cleansing of the temple: 2:13–22). Otherwise, Ford does not overly concern himself with matters of historical criticism.

In his treatment of chapter 1 Ford lays out a rich panoply of Johannine concepts, beginning with the momentous “In the Beginning was the Word” recalling Genesis 1:1. Then follows in the prologue (vv. 1–18), a cascade of words familiar to readers of John’s Gospel: life, light and darkness, glory, grace and truth. The rest of the chapter (vv. 19–51) introduces further key terms: the witness of John the Baptist, Jesus the Lamb of God, Son of God and, in v. 51, the mysterious Son of Man. Then in verse 38ff comes the delightful little story where Jesus invites the first disciples to follow him, thereby introducing the key theme of discipleship.

It is impossible to do adequate justice to this excellent commentary, but readers may get a brief glimpse of Ford’s ability to question familiar interpretations of key ideas by focusing on a single term: truth. In 16:13 Jesus assures his anxious disciples that after his return to the Father, the Holy Spirit will “guide you into all the truth”. How comprehensive is this? Ford notes the numerous attempts to limit this to a “neatly defined package of meaning” (p.316). The activity of the Holy Spirit is far greater than merely reminding the disciples and their successors of truths already revealed. The Gospel is clear too that truth is inseparable from action. In 3:21 John links truth and light in a passage contrasting lovers of darkness with those who come to the light. Later, in chapter 18, in his confrontation with Pilate, Jesus accepts the title of king but proceeds to fill it with his own meaning: “For this I was born, for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth” (18:37).

I should just mention Ford’s indebtedness to the work of Richard Hays, who expounded the value of figural interpretation which he defined as “the discernment of unexpected patterns of correspondence between earlier and later events or persons within a continuous temporal stream”. Applying this principle to John, Hays writes that “even more comprehensively than the other gospels, John understands the Old Testament as a vast matrix of symbols prefiguring Jesus”. This way of interpreting will frequently alert readers to recognise this principle at work. An excellent example of this can be seen in Ford’s treatment of the cleansing of the temple (2:13-25). In reading the Gospel alongside the Old Testament, Ford consistently uses the Greek translation (LXX).

I have no doubt that anybody who buys this commentary will find in it an imaginative resource, opening up new ways of understanding and applying this wonderful Gospel. My only minor quibble is that I don’t think the average reader will know what “midrash” is (p.58).

To conclude, I think this commentary could profitably be read right through such is the quality of the narrative. My verdict is, buy this book!

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