Previous | Next

Fall 2016 · Vol. 45 No. 2 · pp. 229–231 

Book Review


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

Reviewed by Alicia J. Batten

This book is a relatively recent addition to the Believers Church Bible Commentary Series. The author, Willard M. Swartley, is a well-published scholar and currently professor emeritus at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. The series aims to provide accessible commentaries that are informed by scholarship and shaped by some of the theological emphases found especially within but not limited to the Anabaptist tradition. Swartley’s commentary on John fulfills that mandate.

The introduction addresses major themes in the Gospel, and then engages some of the historical issues such as date, authorship, and relationship to 1, 2, 3 John, Revelation, and the Synoptic Gospels. In these sections Swartley outlines the scholarly consensus, which he appears to generally adhere to. He discusses the Gospel’s major themes: its relationship to the Old Testament, composition, plot, ethics, political perspective, as well as its spirituality and symbolism. Swartley’s approach is a narrative one, meaning that he seeks to understand John as an integrated {230} whole and in its final canonical form rather than examining its different sources or focusing upon how such sources have been edited and sewn together. In addition, and as Swartley points out, some Johannine scholars have argued that the Gospel does not offer much ethical content. He challenges this view, emphasizing its nonviolence while making it clear that there are aspects of John that have been used to justify violence and hatred, such as its portrayal of “the Jews” and the apparent exclusivism of the narrative. He addresses both issues throughout the commentary. Finally, Swartley accentuates the political dimension of John’s portrayal of the story of Jesus, especially the fact that Jesus receives political titles (Messiah, Son of God) that meant “more than personal salvation” (41).

Each chapter of the commentary follows roughly the same pattern. There is a reflective preview, an outline of the pericope, explanatory notes that focus on one or several verses, then sections on the particular portion of the Gospel both in its biblical context as well as in the life of the church. Often, Swartley will end each chapter with “Sermon Starters” or a series of ideas that people might want to engage as they consider a sermon on the particular passage addressed. At the end of the book, Swartley provides an overall outline of John, and subsequently includes a series of short essays on a range of subjects that includes authorship, the meaning of “the Jews,” theological themes, Gnosticism, the roles of women, textual variants, and others. There is also a map of ancient Palestine. It is important to note that an accompanying website provides additional background, and Swartley refers to it periodically.

What makes this commentary different is its emphasis upon the ethics of the Gospel of John and its intent to serve those who share the commitments of the Believers Church. The commentary is well informed by scholarship, and Swartley writes in a clear and accessible manner such that a general audience will find the book useful and engaging. One quibble I had was his repeated reference to P52, the oldest papyrus fragment we have for the Gospel, as dating to 125 CE. Swartley therefore concludes, like many scholars, that John must have been written before that year (most, including Swartley, posit 90 CE). For some time now scholars have questioned the 125 CE date. Carbon dating is only accurate within a century, and paleographic (study of ancient handwriting) examination has not proven conclusive either. Rather than concluding that the Gospel of John was written in the late first century, a significantly later date may be possible (late second and perhaps even early third century). A later date could have implications for how Swartley addresses other issues. {231}

However, this is a well written commentary that scholars, theological students, and many church members will find useful as they grapple with the often enigmatic Gospel of John.

Alicia J. Batten
Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Theological Studies
Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo

Previous | Next