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Spring 2014 · Vol. 43 No. 1 · pp. 131–133 

Book Review


Willard M. Swartley. Believers Church Bible Commentary. Harrisonburg, VA and Waterloo, ON: Herald, 2013. 593 pages.

Reviewed by Jane S. Webster

A prolific author and educator in the fields of biblical studies, theology, and Mennonite studies, Willard Swartley transforms copious, complex arguments from the academic study of the Gospel of John into a well-balanced and useful commentary. He simplifies the arguments without losing their force, and does not burden the reader with convoluted and extensive footnotes. He integrates technical discussions of Greek and Hebrew only when necessary (transliterating the terms) and always provides an English translation of the original words. In doing so, he makes John scholarship accessible to the layperson, undergraduate, seminarian, and pastor alike.

In a relatively brief introduction, Swartley deals with scholarly questions of date, authorship, location, composition, themes, and purpose. He chooses to read the Gospel “in its canonical form,” rather than “dissecting it piecemeal into multiple sources” (37). To this end, he focuses on narrative and literary analysis (such as chiastic structure, word studies, and theme development) to highlight various features of the Gospel. Most {132} importantly, he draws out ethical themes that he says have been “marginalized or absent in the last century’s literature on John” (38).

Swartley follows the introduction with his detailed commentary, dividing his discussion into a prologue chapter and then into three parts, one for each of the three Passovers narrated in the Gospel. Each part is then divided into smaller sections, including an introductory “preview” linking it to a modern problem, a thematic outline, explanatory notes, exegesis, as well as a “Text in Biblical Context” and a “Text in the Life of the Church” section. The “Biblical Context” section compares particular Johannine themes with other New Testament motifs—for example, Jesus the bridegroom (115), Jesus and the Samaritans (134), and peace and mission (467). In the “Life of the Church” section, Swartley often looks at how selected motifs developed in the church over time, but always finds a way to apply the exegesis to contemporary church ministry and ethics. Swartley is indeed a master at bringing church concerns and biblical text into fruitful conversation.

The prologue chapter will serve as an example of what readers can expect from this commentary. Making strong connections to early Jewish and biblical themes (but not, as is common, to Greek philosophy), Swartley organizes this chapter according to its chiastic structure, which points to the important intertwining of Christology and discipleship. He shows that the meaning of the prologue emerges more clearly when read in light of Genesis 1 and Christ-as-agent-of-creation passages elsewhere in the New Testament. The chapter concludes with Swartley’s application of biblical scholarship in practical ways to the life of the Christian community: the prologue is to be lived and experienced as that “which beckons us to hear the Gospel in wonder and worship” (68).

Each of the three major parts follows the same pattern. In Part 1, the First Passover, Swartley explores the events and themes that “tumble over each other” (23). Jesus reveals his identity; some believe and testify, and the community expands; others reject him. The first part of the Gospel “resounds with hope” (144). In Part 2, the Second Passover, Swartley shows how the narrative shifts its focus to growing conflict. His practical counsel urges contemporary believers to “Let the Jews in John remind us of that part of ourselves that obstructs love of Jesus . . . and [keeps us from] welcoming ‘Samaritans’ with joy” (228). Part 3 explores Jesus’ last hours, death, and resurrection. Here Swartley succinctly explains how and why Christian ethics must be a “resurrection ethics” (472–74).

The main text of the commentary is framed with a detailed table of contents at the beginning and, at the end, an outline of the Gospel and a series of essays that capture the heart of the contemporary debates on such matters as authorship, women, drama, and duality. A map, bibliography, an annotated list of selected resources, and an index of biblical and ancient {133} sources are also included. For readers interested in the 172 pages that were cut from an earlier draft of the book, Herald Press makes them available in an online “Web Supplement” on their website.

The strength of this book is its extensive and expansive engagement with recent scholarly work on the Gospel of John and its insightful applications for the church. Swartley makes a substantial and worthy contribution to the Christian community by pealing back the multiple layers of this richly complex Gospel and showing us how it can still excite “wonder and worship” two thousand years after it was written.

Jane S. Webster
Professor of Religious Studies
Barton College, Wilson, North Carolina

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