donderdag 21 februari 2013

Review of: D. Moody Smith Jr., John (ANTC), Abingdon Press, 1999; in: Interpretation

D. Moody Smith Jr., John (ANTC), Abingdon Press, 1999.

Review in: Interpretation 2004 58: 197
Review door: Robert Kysar
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by D. Moody Smith, Jr.
Abingdon New Testament Commentary Series. Abingdon, Nashville, 1999.
428 pp. $28.00. ISBN 0-687-05812-0.

WITH A DISTINGUISHED CAREER THAT SPANS nearly forty years, D. Moody Smith is one of the patriarchs of contemporary Johannine studies in North America. His influence in critical studies is well-earned and deserved. In keeping with the series, Smith aims to interpret the Gospel of John in a manner that reflects the best of current scholarship yet remains accessible to leaders in the church.

The form of Smith's commentary follows the general pattern of most modern, critical works of this kind. He begins with a brief twenty-five page introduction that addresses the general questions of structure, genre, authorship, composition and source, setting, and audience, and concludes with a few pages on the theology and ethics of the Fourth Gospel. His approach to John rests on an assumption that at least three stages of the Johannine community are reflected in the text: the periods of Jesus' ministry, the conflict with the synagogue, and the church's life after the split from the synagogue. He cautiously suggests that Ephesus is a likely place for the composition of this gospel, some time between 90 and 110 CE.

After dealing with the first chapter of John, the commentary divides chs. 2 through 20 into two parts, as do many others: "The Revelation of the Glory Before the World" and "The Revelation of the Glory Before the Community." Smith treats ch. 21 as an epilogue whose function is to draw together loose-ends from the whole narrative (e.g., the relationship of the Beloved Disciple and Peter). Nearly every subdivision of the text (e.g., ch. 17) is first treated as a whole before the specific verses are addressed. This allows Smith to explore general and sometimes broader issues involved in the particular text before moving to its details.

Smith's characteristic theological study of the New Testament is evident as well as his contension that revelation is a central theme in John (as the titles of the two halves of the narrative indicate). He emphasizes that Jesus' death as narrated in the Fourth Gospel entails an unanticipated understanding of glory. Equally important to Smith is the theory that this gospel was composed amid conflict between the synagogue and the Jews who had become Christians. According to this hypothesis, the Johannine Christians were at some point expelled from the Jewish community. In this sense, Smith represents a widely accepted theory of the origin of the Johannine church.

Perhaps most striking about this commentary is Smith's treatment of passages in the Fourth Gospel in light of the synoptics. He does not argue that the Fourth Evangelist knew and used any of the first three gospels (although a later publication stresses the possibility of John's use of Mark at certain points). Generally, however, Smith practices a kind of intertextual criticism that supposes that the four gospels are interrelated and should be interpreted as such. For instance, he views 13:1-38 as a form of the Last Supper. After setting a passage in dialogue with the synoptics, Smith brings his discussion to a conclusion that gives the reader hooks by which to catch the meaning. This sort of interpretative approach builds upon our knowledge of the synoptic story of Jesus and prevents us from entirely isolating John from the other three gospels.

Smith proposes what we might call a "moderately sacramental" reading of John. He cannot imagine that ch. 6 could have been read in the first century as anything other than a reference to the Eucharist, but he holds together both a sacramental and incarnational understanding of the narrative and Jesus' words. In a similar manner, he points out that the blood and water from Jesus side (19:34) probably binds a eucharistie reference to the blood with an anti-docetic interpretation of the water (i.e., Jesus is really dead).

No matter how complete and competent, every commentary on John is vulnerable to criticism, and Smith's is no different. I sometimes wished that he had avoided a few qualifications and cautions in favor of more concise conclusions. For example, Smith does not suppose we can decide either that the Fourth Gospel actually represents the historical Jesus or that it does not. While he does not hold that the gospel's author was an eyewitness disciple of Jesus, he insists that we take the gospel's authority seriously. However, if that is a weakness in this commentary, it is due entirely to the admirable fact that Smith does not want us to pretend that we know more than we do. The result is a "middle-of-the-road" treatment of John. This sort of critical thought may not please those who wish for absolute certainty and crystal clarity, but it exemplifies an honest intellectual maturity.

This is not to say that Smith's commentary does not present a clear portrayal of the Fourth Gospel. Illustrative of the features of that portrait, Smith concludes his discussion of the death of Jesus in John with these words: "The God who reveals himself in this Jesus is a God of the depths, as well as the heights, of human existence. Precisely at the depths of human experience ... he glorifies God; God glories him (17:4-5)" (pp. 369-70).

The pastor or church leader will find no better guide through the sometimes strange land of the Gospel of John and its message for us today than Smith's commentary. Unlike many commentators who seem to remain neutral or uninterested in how a biblical text relates to the church today, Smith is a both an excellent scholar and a devout believer.

Robert Kysar, emeritus
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