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Testament
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A Christology too Far? Some Thoughts on Andrew Lincolns Commentary


on John
Wendy E.S. North
Journal for the Study of the New Testament 2007; 29; 343
DOI: 10.1177/0142064X07076315
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JSNT 29.3 (2007) 343-351 Copyright 2007 SAGE Publications


(London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi) http://JSNT.sagepub.com
DOI: 10.1177/0142064X07076315

A Christology too Far? Some Thoughts on Andrew Lincolns


Commentary on John
Wendy E.S. North
4 Trinity Road, Darlington, DL3 7AS, UK
james.north2@ntlworld.com

With the publication of this commentary, Andrew Lincoln has provided a


much-needed successor to the 1968 publication by J.N. Sanders and B.A.
Mastin in the Black series. In keeping with the series, Lincolns is a single,
moderately sized volume, moderately sized in this case amounting to
almost 600 well-stocked pages, an advance of almost 100 pages on its predecessor. This increase is an indicator of the fact that, as Lincoln rightly
reminds us (p. vii), the intervening years have seen major changes not
only in New Testament scholarship in general, but also specically in the
eld of Johannine studies, with a welter of secondary literature to boot. If
a commentary is to stay within manageable proportions today, these
circumstances make it inevitable that choices must be made. Lincolns
decisions have been to concentrate on the literary, historical and theological dimensions of the Gospelin themselves enough to ll several
tomesand also to refrain from specic interaction with other scholarship
in the commentary proper. This last feature, plus the fact that the translation is the commentators own, is in line with the aims and objectives of
the Black series.
The 91-page introduction supplies detailed discussion and suggested
reading on each of the following topics: the approach of the commentary;
narrative outline, shape and plot; genre; date and authorship; relation to
the Synoptic Gospels; historicity and truth; composition of the Gospel
and relation to other Johannine literature; the Gospels perspective on
Christology and the relation to Judaism; setting and purposes; and impact.
There is a wealth of valuable material here to whet the appetite for the commentary proper and for the additional discussions included therein. The
following four points are offered as of particular interest.
First, having elected to treat with Johns text in its nal form (excluding
7.538.11), Lincoln nevertheless takes seriously the possibility that the

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Journal for the Study of the New Testament 29.3 (2007)

Gospel was composed in stages (p. 1). He posits three stages in all: a rst
version of the Gospel, to be followed by a second, revised version, both
from the evangelists hand and, third, additional material composed by a
later editor including ch. 21, some minor glosses, and possibly the Beloved
Disciple material. Linked with this approach is Lincolns proposal that
the Johannine epistles, by yet another hand, were produced roughly contemporaneously with the Gospel, since they appear to coincide in reecting
the same issues (pp. 50-57). Second, Lincoln is persuaded that the bios,
or ancient biography, is the genre that best suits the character of the
Gospel (pp. 14-17) in which connection his ne discussion on historicity
and truth (pp. 39-50) is essential reading. Third, the engaging personal
note signalling the commentators conversion in the writing from the
assumption of Johns independence of the Synoptics to the conviction
that he knew and used all three (p. 32) becomes the platform for extensive
discussion, both in the introduction and during the commentary, of the
creative nature of that relationship. Fourth, in discussing Johns Christology, Lincoln is emphatic, on the one hand, that the evangelists presentation presupposes the reality of the human life of Jesus of Nazareth (pp.
59-60), while, on the other, he maintains that the unique nature of Jesus
relationship to God means that Jesus is only God (p. 61), enjoys divine
status as the Son (p. 66), and shares the identity of the one God (pp. 68,
70).
The main part of the commentary is followed by an appendix devoted
to 7.538.11, which is succeeded in turn by a bibliography (English
language only) and indexes of scriptural references, modern authors and
subjects.
Lincoln begins his preface by posing the questions: Why another commentary? Dont we have more than enough? (p. vii). And well he might.
Accessible to beginners because of the simplicity of its medium and
difcult for professionals because of the profundity of its message, the
Fourth Gospel has been at the centre of the Christian faith throughout its
history, shaping its doctrine and inspiring its worship, its music and its
art. Commentaries there have been aplenty during that process, including
several celebrated examples of the genre in the last century alone, all of
which is calculated to make the production of yet another seem daunting
in prospect. Yet Lincolns skills are such as to make this commentary
indispensable to beginners and professionals alike, bringing fresh perspectives to the continuing endeavour to understand this extraordinary Gospel.
No beginner himself, Lincoln is the author of several volumes in the
eld of New Testament studies and has recently become well established
on the Johannine front with the publication of his magisterial Truth on

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NORTH A Christology too Far?

345

Trial (2000). In consequence, his comments carry an authority born of


experience, and so where he chooses to take a rm stand, we need to sit
up and take notice. This applies in particular to the following three points.
First, Lincolns insistence that it is wrong to render hoi Ioudaioi in translation as the Judeans (p. 71) needs to be heard in the context of recent
inuential publications to the contrary (Danker 2000: viii, 478b; Esler
and Piper 2006: 159-64). Second, his serious doubts concerning the historical reliability of the Johannine record (e.g., pp. 26, 40-46, 163-67,
448-51) are an important counterbalance to assumptions that material
unique to the Gospel betrays Johns reliance on non-Synoptic tradition
(see Bauckham 1998: 159-61; Blomberg 2001: 56-57). Here his clearheaded distinction between historical plausibility and historical authenticity is particularly relevant (p. 449). Third, the considerable amount of
detailed and high-quality research throughout this commentary devoted to
mapping the contours of the proposed direct relation between John and
the Synoptics must surely tip the scales decisively in favour of this
position, and so place the onus on those who would disagree to argue the
case afresh. In particular, those not persuaded of the Signs Gospel hypothesis will appreciate his commonsense argument at 4.54 that, since there
are no further signs at Cana, then the numbering drops out at this point
(p. 188; see further pp. 29, 505, 507).
Another of the many qualities Lincoln brings to the commentators task
is an acute literary awareness. Not only does he privilege Johns text as
his primary conversation-partner, but he attends closely to the literary
ripples on its surface. Promoted by newer literary-critical approaches, yet
never really absent from the best of redaction criticism, the capacity for a
literary appreciation of Johns text is an essential requirement for understanding his Gospel. In Lincolns case, this aptitude has lent some remarkable insights both in terms of the craftsmanship that has gone into the
Gospel and also the thinking of its creator. Thus, for example, he has
caught beautifully Johns natural sense of theatre in the observations
about the arrangement and juxtaposition of scenes, his fondness for a
seven-part structure, and his capacity for dramatizing teaching material
from tradition (cf. pp. 180, 192, 280, 375, 434, 458). Note further Lincolns
approach to the function of the Beloved Disciple as a strategy for retrojecting the authors post-resurrection viewpoint into the pre-resurrection
time of the narrative (pp. 22-23, 379, 480-81) and also his grasp of the
evangelists self-perception as the instrument of the Spirit-Paraclete,
especially the way this will have informed his understanding of the interpretative material he places on Jesus lips (pp. 47-48, 430). Among many
other examples that could be cited here, it remains only to add that

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Journal for the Study of the New Testament 29.3 (2007)

Lincolns analysis of Johns composition of the bread of life discourse in


ch. 6 (pp. 223-25) is the best this reviewer has ever read.
In an undertaking of this magnitude, it is inevitable that some aspects
of the study will become the stuff of debate. Two in particular have struck
this reader as inviting further discussion. The rst is Lincolns proposal
that the later stages of the production of the Gospel can be linked with
concerns expressed in the Johannine epistles (see pp. 86-87). There are
two problems with this approach. First, there is the fact that the precise
relation of the epistles to the Gospel, both in content and in date, cannot
be determined with certainty. Thus, Lincolns proposal to situate all four
documents within a single time-frame is already based on conjecture. The
second problem is that precisely what has gone amiss in Johannine circles
in the case of the epistles also dees certainty, not least because the author
of 1 John is not overly blessed with clarity of mind. Some proto-Gnostic
tendency may have been at work, as Lincoln supposes (see pp. 56, 106).
Equally, however, the epistle writers insistence on the centrality to the
faith of the role and reality of Jesus as Christ (1 Jn 2.18-22; 4.2-3; cf. 1 Jn
2.7) may indicate that a theocentric tendency, already characteristic of the
tradition, has been taken to extremes (see Lieu 1981: 220-26). In other
words, to allow a particular perspective on 13 John to be involved in ones
approach to certain passages in the Gospel is not without its difculties.
For example, while we could place the call for unity in Jn 17 in the context
of the potential for schism created by false teaching, in line with references
in 1 John (so p. 385), is it not equally possible, logical even, to see the
same preoccupation as linked to the strongly worded threat of persecution
in the previous chapter (16.2)? Similarly, while Peters rehabilitation in Jn
21 may be seen in light of the wider ecclesial interests evidenced in the
epistles (so pp. 87, 522), is it not also possible that the authors decision
here to showcase Peter, the representative martyr-gure, is also linked to a
persecution context?
The second aspect of Lincolns study to invite discussion here concerns
his viewpoint on Johns Christology. Lincolns position, in a nutshell, is
that the Gospels presentation of Jesus, notwithstanding its undeniable
dependence on Jewish cultural concepts, is such that later Christian orthodoxy can be seen as having developed in sympathy with its implications.
Note, for example, the following comments: rst, in the introduction,
The notion of the divinity of Jesus, in the sense of his full inclusion in
the identity of the one God of Israel, is nota later invention of or development within patristic debate but is already part of the witness of the
Fourth Gospel (p. 70); second, on Jn 1.1, it might well be claimed that
most of the Christological afrmations of an ecumenical confession, such

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NORTH A Christology too Far?

347

as the Nicene Creed, are already implicit in the prologue read within the
Gospel as a whole (p. 98); and third, on 8.42 (cp. 15.26), Christian
theology has rightly seen this languageas foundational for its notion of
trinitarian relations and their divine processions. God produces God, both
Son and Spirit, in a way that manifests internal differentiation within the
one God (p. 272; see further pp. 182, 306, 435 etc.). The problem here is
not the fact that later Christian tradition drew inspiration from the Gospel
in formulating its doctrine, but whether or not we can afrm with condence that it caught its implications rightly. The following reections
on Johns Christology are offered in the spirit of continuing the debate on
this crucial and most perplexing of issues.
First, there is Johns perspective on the signicance of Jesus life. As
Lincoln notes, Christology for John is intimately woven with theology
(p. 59). How true. In fact, so dominant is Johns theocentric perspective
that the career of Jesus, son of Joseph (1.45), acquires signicance only
in the context of God and Gods dealings with the created world. We are
greeted with this perspective in the Gospel prologue and are reminded of
it as the narrative proceeds, not only by the miniature gospel at 3.16
(Lindars 1972: 24), but also by the repeated disclaimers placed by John
on Jesus lips that he can do nothing on his own authority but speaks and
acts only at Gods behest (5.19-30; cf. 7.16-18; 8.26-29; 10.37-38; 12.4450; 14.10, 24; 17.7-8). Thus, it would appear that what drives Johns
account is the fundamental conviction that in Jesus human life God was
made known as never before and, accordingly, he endows his subject
with the character of the Deity thus revealed. If this is the case, then it
raises acutely the issue of how far we are justied in drawing conclusions
of an exclusively Christological nature from the language John uses of
Jesus. How, for example, do we approach Johns use of the term
monogens (1.14, 18; 3.16, 18; cf. 1 Jn 4.9)? Does it imply that Jesus was
consubstantial with the Father, as the Nicene Creed has it, or does the
emphasis lie with God and the lengths to which God was prepared to go
in his love for the world? If we favour the second option, monogens then
becomes an expression of Gods special regard for Jesus who, among
Gods children (1.12; 11.52; cf. 20.17), remains one of a kind, the child
on whom a father dotes (cf. 1.14), because his relationship to God was
one of unrivalled obedience and utter self-giving (cf. 10.17) (see Edwards
2003: 95-96). Indeed, the fact that monogens and agaptos are translation variants may well tell us that Johns choice of the former has behind
it the thought of Abraham and his beloved son Isaac whom he was willing
to sacrice (see Jn 3.16; cp. Gen. 22.2 [Aq.]; 22.12 [Sm.]; Heb. 11.17)
and also perhaps that this is the Johannine equivalent of references in the

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Journal for the Study of the New Testament 29.3 (2007)

Synoptics to Gods expressions of approval for Jesus as his beloved Son


(Mk 1.11; 9.7 parr.). In all these cases, an ontological reading of Jesus
status in relation to God need not be in view. These considerations, given
also that the normal usage of monogens is with reference to a child,
strengthen the argument that John has understood monogens in 1.18 as
referring to Jesus as Son. If so, then either the reading huios is to be preferred to theos in the text (Edwards 2003: 95) or, if theos be retained as
the harder reading, then the concept of sonship needs to be understood
together with monogens, with theos in apposition, in interpreting the text
(Lindars 1972: 98-99). In other words, to read the phrase the only God
strictly at face value as a Christological description, as Lincoln does (p.
108), does not seem to do justice to Johns meaning. Note, by contrast,
that Lincoln inserts son into the text next to monogens in 1.14 (pp. 92,
105).
A second factor that may be relevant to the way John presents Jesus is
the Gospels Sitz im Leben. As Lincoln agrees, the circumstances
addressed by the Gospel of deteriorating relations between Johns group
and the local Jewish community have been critical to the distinctive
development of Johns message (pp. 82-83). Thus, in a situation of claim
and counter-claim, where attitudes have polarized and rhetorical fences
are high, it is inevitable that Jesus, the centrepiece of Johannine faith,
will be aligned with God in sharp contrast to the Jews who are seen to
oppose him. Today we are much more aware than previously of the
undesirability of being on the disapproving end of Johns pen and properly
insist that the language used must be seen as a phenomenon of ancient
culture. But can we afford to pick and choose? For example, if we are at
pains to recognize the charge in Jn 8.44 that the Jews are children of the
devil as rhetoric that cannot have ontological implications (so pp. 27273), why is it that when John has Jesus declare, in conict with the
Jews, that he is Gods Son and one with the Father (10.30, 36), these are
taken as positive indicators of Jesus ontological status of equality with
God (pp. 306-308)?
Finally, there is the vexed question of whether Johns presentation of
Jesus has stretched and transformed Jewish categories, thus paving the
way for the modication within monotheism that was to characterize later
Christianity (so pp. 90, 98), or whether John himself understood his
interpretation of Jesus life to be completely in accord with the Judaism he
knew. The vexation here is aggravated by the fact that the evangelist
seems to want to have his cake and eat it, that is, on the one hand he is
clear that nothing can remain the same now that Jesus has come and, on
the other, he is careful to endow the gure of Jesus with all that belongs

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NORTH A Christology too Far?

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to the Jewish heritage. This suggests that there is a delicate balance to be


struck, and it invites us to question how far we represent John aright in
pressing home the discontinuity aspect of his message with terms like
supersede, transcend, replace and surpass (so p. 76; see further pp.
208, 233, 234). This problem is nowhere more acute than in the prologue
to the Gospel. For example, to what extent does 1.9-13 reach back to a
time before the Logos became esh in Jesus, and to what extent does it
preview the impact of his life? Lincoln nally inclines towards the
second option here, given the text as it now stands (pp. 6, 101, 102). Yet
it could be argued that there must be some dimension of Johns thought
that allows a backdoor through which the faithful in the past can be
smuggled, otherwise surely Moses, Abraham and Isaiah could not be seen
as having got it right (5.46; 8.56; 12.41), and peoples response to the
Logos become esh in 3.16-21 could not be seen as anticipatory of nal
judgment and the disclosure of who is in a right relationship to God
(p. 156). Matters are no easier with reference to Jesus and the law in
1.16-17. What does John mean by the phrase grace instead of grace in
1.16, given that the rst grace is evidently the law (v. 17)? Does he
mean that the law is now replaced by the new reality in Jesus (so
p. 108), or is it something more complicated than that; perhaps that the
grace and truth available through Jesus must now take pride of place
(so Edwards 2003: 94) but also has continuity with the rst grace, the
law as the word of God? Our answer to this affects how we approach
passages like 7.19-24 and 10.33-38, both of which utilise a qal wahomer
argument from Scripture in support of Jesus actions and words. Are such
passages part of an argument to demonstrate that Jesus cannot be judged
to be in breach of the law because, as the Logos, he is above it (pp. 75,
250, 308), or is Johns logic that Jesus witness does not break the law
(cf. 7.23) because the law is Gods word that cannot be annulled (10.35)
and Jesus is its human embodiment? In favour of the general argument
for more continuity with Judaism rather than less in Johns case, it is
worth pointing out that, except for two references to the new
commandment and the new tomb (13.34; 19.41), the vocabulary of new
and old never occurs throughout the entire Gospel, something that
cannot be said for Lincolns commentary (cf. pp. 108, 109, 128, 136, 144,
182 etc.). It is also worth noting that John never uses the term ekklsia,
which would seem to indicate some degree of self-denition (contrast Mt.
16.18; 18.17; see only 3 Jn 6, 9, 10). Finally, the possibility cannot be
ruled out that John was so intent on presenting Jesus as the unique
revealer of God in his message for his readers that he neglected to think
through its possible implications for monotheism. At this point, the wise

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Journal for the Study of the New Testament 29.3 (2007)

and prophetic words of C.K. Barrett on Johns use of the Logos concept
seem apt:
How far John was successful in using the model without being dominated
by it, how far he allowed it to lead him into making statements that did not
correspond with what he really wished to say, will doubtless continue to
be disputed (Barrett 1982: 12).

At the practical level, it can fairly be said that Lincolns commentary


will prove an invaluable contribution to Johannine studies in several
respects. Not only will it be consulted by specialists for its thorough, upto-date, and perceptive scholarship, but also, on two counts in particular,
it will more than prove its worth in a teaching context. The rst is the fact
that Lincoln is an excellent communicator. His beautifully balanced, economical sentences, in which the vocabulary is undaunting and any technical terms, where used, are carefully explained, make Lincolns lucid
argumentation readily accessible to all, including non-specialists. The
second is the fact that the translation he provides is as literal as possible.
For those not acquainted with Greek, who otherwise would not be in a
position to respond critically to the variety of English versions available,
this is an essential tool for getting to grips with the text. If problem there
be in this context, it consists in the fact that the decision not to cite
secondary literature throughout the commentary proper could disadvantage
those less well read in the discipline. It may be added here that Lincolns
own text is amazingly free of typographical slips, which is an achievement
all by itself. The only one of substance noted by this reader is the fact that
the category parousia, promised in the subject index (p. 580), is not to
be found.
What does one look for in a commentary? This is not an easy question
to answer, since different commentaries tend to play different roles in
ones research life. Nevertheless, the commentary to rush to rst, in my
experience, is the one by someone whose eye can dance across the text so
that a perspective on the whole is never lost in discussing any of its parts.
Andrew Lincoln has this gift.
References
Barrett, C.K.
1982
Bauckham, R.
1998

Essays on John (London: SPCK).


John for Readers of Mark, in R. Bauckham (ed.), The Gospels for All
Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences (Edinburgh: T&T Clark): 14771.

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NORTH A Christology too Far?

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Blomberg, C.L.
2001
The Historical Reliability of Johns Gospel (Leicester: Apollos/IVP).
Danker, F.W. (ed.)
2000
A GreekEnglish Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian
Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
Edwards, R.
2003
Discovering John (London: SPCK).
Esler, P.F., and R.A. Piper
2006
Lazarus, Mary and Martha: A Social-Scientic and Theological Reading of
John (London: SCM Press).
Lincoln, A.T.
2000
Truth on Trial: The Lawsuit Motif in Johns Gospel (Peabody, MA:
Hendrickson).
Lindars, B.
1972
The Gospel of John (London: Oliphants).
Lieu, J.M.
1981
Authority to Become Children of God: A Study of 1 John, NovT 23: 21028.

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