Saturday, 1 November 2014

Anchor and John's Gospel

I've heard some rumours of late that the Anchor Yale Bible Commentary series is looking to replace the venerable Gospel of John commentary by Raymond Brown. Whilst I love Brown's commentary, and would hate to see it become unavailable (as Bultmann's was for many years, before Paul Anderson worked to resurrect it through Wipf and Stock), I have to also say that I've been waiting for news of a new AYBC Gospel of John for some time. Brown's commentary is almost fifty years old, and whilst its treatment of the Johannine text is second to none it is definitely showing its age. Apparently Father Brown was working on an updated edition when he passed away, and that was almost twenty years ago. The time hopefully is nigh for a new Johannine entry in this venerable series.

This got me to thinking: how would an AYBC commentary on John's Gospel look if written today? Any volume in the AYBC should be representative yet exceptional. That is a tough balance. It shouldn't be idiosyncratic; I go to AYBC to discover the major exegetical and historical issues surrounding a biblical book overall or a particular passage. Certainly writers in the AYBC series can and should take stands, even controversial stands, on these matters; but frankly when I read Luke Timothy Johnson on the authorship of 1 Timothy I am less interested in his judgment that it was written by Paul than I am in his treatment of the arguments for and against that judgment. And that's where exceptionality comes in. Johnson's treatment is not exceptional because he adopts a minority position. It is exceptional because he presents the material in a way that an initiate to the discussion can quickly find her or his bearings. This is a remarkable service to the discipline, and one achieved by the best of the AYB volumes.

It was one achieved by Brown's commentary. The problem is that Brown is, for obvious reasons, engaged with a long-past state of the discussion. Of the material in Brown's commentary the most dated is the introductory matter. Brown wrote during the heyday of redaction criticism, wherein detailed reconstructions of the text's history was all the rage, as was the subsequent albeit quite questionable step of translating that textual history into a community history. Whilst many scholars might still in principle affirm that such procedures are legitimate they are no longer the focus of Johannine studies, and any commentary that made them a focus would be looking backwards rather than forwards. Conversely, Brown was writing at a time when the idea that John was a major source for the historical Jesus, perhaps even on par with the Synoptic Gospels, bordered on the laughable. I'd want to see more attention paid to the consequences of the remarkable quantity and quality of Johannine scholarship that has, directly and indirectly, resulted from the work of the SBL's John, Jesus, and History Group. I'd want to see a discussion of Johannine theology that engages with the arguments of the "early high Christology" crowd, as well as a strong emphasis upon the Jewishness of the text. I've long thought that John's Gospel is both one of the most deeply Jewish and the most distinctly Christian texts of the New Testament, and I think that this is being increasingly borne out as the scholarly enterprise more precisely defines such matters as Johannine Christology. Related to Christology, recent years have seen major conceptual advances in our capacity to correlate our understanding of a text's theological reflections upon Jesus of Nazareth with its historical judgments upon his life; I'd like to see the fruits of these reflections in such a contemporary. More than anything I'd want to see such matters introduced thematically in the intro and then revisited throughout the commentary proper.

For all my disagreements with certain aspects of Brown's thinking on John's Gospel, for all my sense that the commentary is dated, Brown would be a tough act to follow. But with the right scholar--perhaps a Paul Anderson or a Tom Thatcher--we could have a text that will still be read profitably by students and scholars in 2060, just as in 2014 we still read Brown's commentary with profit. Here's to hoping.

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