Students often ask me about the books I have found most useful in my study of the Fourth Gospel. After devoting a significant part of my career to Johannine studies, writing a few books on John, and teaching an advanced course on the gospel for about 20 years, it is interesting to reflect on what major contributions have shaped my thinking. The amount of scholarly research on John is overwhelming. The Johannine literature website organized by Felix Just (http://catholic-resources.org/John) lists about 1,000 books on John written since 1900. And 200 have been written since 2000 alone. Just keeping up with this literature is a monumental task. To get some sense of the scope of this subject just pick up John Ashton’s Understanding the Fourth Gospel 1991, 2007).
The Expository Times has published regular updates on the progress of Johannine Studies for some time. In 1960 A.M. Hunter provided a survey. In 1986 S. Smalley gave another review. And just recently Paul Anderson has brought the conversation right up to date (ExpTim 119.8 (2008)365-73. These articles are indispensable for someone who is charting the major shifts in the discussion as they move from generation to generation. And they will always note the major books and articles we need to read. For example, when C.H. Dodd wrote his game-changing Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel in 1963 every NT scholar of note had to see that something important had shifted in the conversation.
Nevertheless in this deluge of publications, there are always a few books that are there at the standby to help untangle a notorious text. Likewise every scholar knows that there have been a few crucial books that helped them shift their thinking in ways they never expected.
First, commentaries. I own four shelves of them on John alone. But there is no doubt that Raymond Brown’s great two volume commentary in the Anchor series (1966, 1970) set a new course. His ability to unpack linguistic and contextual issues with clarity and precision and his instinctive understanding of Johannine theology inspired many to enter this field. My volumes are almost worn out.
Of course there have been other works as well such as C.K. Barrett’s commentary on the Greek text (1970). And most recently Craig Keener’s massive two volume commentary (2004) is sure to take its place as the go-to volume for contextual background rivaling anything Brown provided. Keener provides 20,000 references to ancient primary sources alone! However there is something more. When we write and teach from John, we also look for authors who bring some penetrating theological insight to the discussion, scholars who weave the Johannine theology eloquently. Here two books come to mind: Lesslie Newbigin’s wonderful The Light Has Come: An Exposition on the Fourth Gospel (1982) is today almost a collector’s item. But even more rare is Edwin Hoskyns and Noel Davey’s The Fourth Gospel (1947). Together these writers offer an insight and passion for John’s theology that you rarely find today. Evangelicals are often caught up with defending the historicity of the gospel (here I’m thinking of commentaries by Morris or Carson). Other books do this better (Blomberg, 1998). Hoskyns and Davey simply guide us into thinking John’s thoughts after him.
Second, turning-point books. I remember the first some time someone handed me a copy of A.E. Harvey’s Jesus on Trial: A Study of the Fourth Gospel (1976). Here for the first time a scholar was indicating that a literary motif -- Jesus on trial -- was threaded throughout the gospel. Suddenly the literary genius of John dawned on me. Today this motif is surveyed in Andrew Lincoln’s Truth on Trial: The Lawsuit Motif in the Fourth Gospel (2000) but nothing has quite replaced the original study by Harvey. This discovery then led to more literary studies, anchored no doubt in Alan Culpepper’s The Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel (1983). At once I knew I was converted: John exhibited a sophistication and nuance that had eluded me for years. And soon I was picking up little books such as Gale Yee’s, Jewish Feasts in the Gospel of John and there recognized motifs -- in this case the festival pattern -- that would simply make John’s Gospel come alive.
Another turning point book was R.E. Brown’s The Community of the Beloved Disciple (1979). Here Brown suggested -- he hoped that only 60% of his detective work was right -- that John’s gospel represented not only the vista of Jesus’ ministry, but also the lives of a community of Christians who treasured the gospel and found in its pages their own story. Brown didn’t persuade me entirely but he did open my thinking to something important: that John (and I do think we have here an apostolic witness) is writing for an audience (a readership) that he is quite aware is there. He sends them (us?) coded messages, he supplies explanations, he frames stories in ways that will speak directly to their times and circumstances. This insight helped me see the literary and theological complexity of the gospel -- how John is often writing on multiple levels -- and that those who penetrate his deepest thoughts enjoy the deeper things about Christ. Those who do not move deeply into the meanings of the gospel are left in the darkness and ironic misunderstanding is all they (like Nicodemus) may express.
One more sadly neglected but vital book is John A.T. Robinson’s The Priority of John (1985). Yes this is the Robinson of such notorious reputation (think: Honest to God) and heroism (think: Redating the New Testament). The Priority of John made a full-scale attack on the notion that John’s gospel had to be written after the war of AD 70. He defends the early date and in many places defends the historicity of the gospel against all comers. This shift in thinking is today represented in Craig Blomberg’s The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel (2001) that simply brings the argument home.
The most promising author who seems to be making a stir is Richard Bauckham. His slim 1998 book, The Gospel for All Christians held a small chapter that took on the idea that John represented a small “school” living in isolation from the wider traditions (think: Culpepper’s The Johannine School, 1975, and others). Now Bauckham has given us the splendid The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple. Narrative, History and Theology in the Gospel of John (2007). For young scholars this is the volume to own. Bauckham makes a variety of soundings into the Johannine tradition and comes away with insights and authenticity that reverses 30 years of scholarly speculation.
Every scholar has his or her own list of books that have been transformative. These are a few of mine. But the list would be longer if space allowed. However finding the important books in a flood of publishing is a difficult task since so much of what goes on in gospel studies is not necessarily innovative or helpful. Nevertheless there are important trends that we should watch and authors we should listen to.
Gary M. Burge (PhD, King's College, Aberdeen University) is a professor of New Testament in the Department of Biblical & Theological Studies at Wheaton College and Graduate School. Gary has authored a number of books including commentaries on John and The Letters of John in the NIV Application Commentary Series and The New Testament in Antiquity, co-authored with Gene Green and Lynn Cohick.