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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Review: Interpreting the Gospel of John by Gary M. Burge

In the acclaimed book, Interpreting the Gospel of John, Gary M. Burge provides an introduction to scholarship on the Gospel of John to beginning college and seminary students. It is his aim to provide a map through the issues in studying John’s Gospel, the myriad of scholarly literature on the Gospel, and guidelines for students’ own scholarly endeavors.

Burge begins his work with a survey of how John’s Gospel has been read. Beginning in the early church, he highlights the great love which the church fathers had for John’s Gospel, but also its popularity among heretical groups, namely the Gnostics [1]. The era was attracted to the mystical and sacramental images found in John’s Gospe [2]. However, the many differences between John’s Gospel and the Synoptic Gospels led later Enlightenment scholars to question its historical validity [3]. The Enlightenment view of John continues to hold sway in a suspicion of John’s historicity and assuming its origins in Hellenism [4].

While Burge is fair to these traditions, he remains critical of assumptions for a Hellenistic origin for John. John might not be as explicitly Jewish as the Synoptic authors, but the final product is filled with subtle allusions to the Old Testament and Jewish culture. “When author and audience share a broad range of understood metaphors, the allusions may take on a subtlety and sophistication that is surprising” [5].

Burge’s affirmation of a Jewish origin for John’s Gospel leads him to a significant question: who wrote it? While Burge fairly explores the suggested authors he affirms the apostle “John wrote, he died, and his community gave final shape to his material” [6]. He believes the writing of the Gospel indicates the author is a Jew from Palestine who was an eyewitness of Jesus and served as an apostle [7]. This accords well with testimony from the second and third centuries which attribute the Gospel to the Apostle John [8].

Burge then proceeds to outline the literary structure of John’s Gospel. First of all, John uses characteristic parenthetical remarks to explain the narrative to the readers, possibly hinting that he is drawing on a source the audience needs clarified [9]. John is also marked by disjoints in the narrative, indicating editing. These disjoints can be seen in the Prologue, the numbering of Jesus’ signs, abrupt geographic changes in chs. 5 and 6, the story of the adulteress, a seeming reordering of chs. 11 and 12, and the extended conclusion to the narrative along with a variety of other examples [10]. These disjoints are called “aporia”, meaning “difficulties” [11]. The final form seems to comprise two “books” which bear the marks of heavy editing. The first, found in chs. 1-12, refers to Jesus’ public ministry [12]. The second, found in chs. 13-21, focuses on the last day of Jesus’ life and resurrection [13].

Burge then outlines several elements of John’s literary style. The first is the theme of misunderstanding. Throughout the narrative, no one is able to understand who Jesus is [14]. This theme is deepened by John’s frequent use of irony. “Irony is a clever ‘play’ on misunderstanding that sets us, as readers, apart from the actors on the Johannine stage. We watch while they not only misunderstand but also fall all over themselves when they are exposed to these revelations” [15]. A third literary device utilized by John is that of asides where the author assists the audience’s understanding of the message [16]. John also creates hierarchies of meaning in which he introduces an image and adds or unveils layers of meaning with each use [17]. Finally, he hides clues to the identity of Christ throughout the text which are invisible to the characters in the narrative, but plain to the reader, namely the “I am” statements [18].

After walking the reader through these issues, Burge presents a method for interpreting the Gospel of John. First, the interpreter must be able to understand the text itself, including discrepancies in the manuscripts and how to punctuate the Greek text. Second, the interpreter studies the literary structure in light of the rest of the New Testament, in the context of the Gospel’s overall flow, and finally, the passage’s own internal structure. Third, the interpreter than researches academic studies on the passage and builds a bibliography. Fourth, the interpreter researches the cultural context of the passage. Finally, the interpreter notes keywords in the passage and traces how John utilizes them throughout his Gospel [19].

After the interpreter has studied the passage, the next task is to preach or teach it. This presents an immediate problem to the teacher: how does one create a bridge between the text and a modern audience? It is for this reason careful exegesis is essential. The teacher must understand the original context and the essential message of the passage [20]. Then the teacher has before him or her the task of finding what this message has to say to the congregation’s context [21].

In preaching John, Burge offers a set of warnings. Do not wear the exegesis done in the study on your sleeve. Doing so turns the sermon into a lecture [22]. Avoid reconstructing the editorial history of the Gospel [23]. Do not take the passages out of their own context [24]. Finally, do not preach as an analyst of the text, but as someone who has studied, prayed, and breathed it in [25].

Burge’s work is by no means the final word on John’s Gospel, nor is it a careful interpretation of the Gospel of John. After reading the book, readers will not have new insights into John’s Gospel, nor is that Burge’s goal. For pastors, the benefit the book offers is instruction in how to study the Gospel of John, especially for preaching. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the studies which have been written on John. For the pastor looking for help in preparing for a sermon or a lesson from John’s Gospel, Burge provides a helpful roadmap to begin studying the Gospel and preaching its power to twenty-first-century congregations.

[1] Gary M. Burge, Interpreting the Gospel of John, p. 7.

[2] Ibid. p. 8.

[3] Ibid. p. 9.

[4] Ibid. p. 11

[5] Ibid. p. 11.

[6] Ibid. p. 45.

[7] Ibid. p. 44.

[8] Ibid. pp. 46-50.

[9] Ibid. p. 62.

[10] Ibid. pp. 63-67.

[11] Ibid. p. 63.

[12] Ibid. p. 78.

[13] Ibid. p. 81.

[14] Ibid. pp. 89-91.

[15] Ibid. p. 91.

[16] Ibid. p. 93.

[17] Ibid. p. 94.

[18] Ibid. p. 97.

[19] Ibid. p. 105.

[20] Ibid. pp. 196-197.

[21] Ibid. p. 197.

[22] Ibid. pp. 200-202.

[23] Ibid. pp. 202-203.

[24] Ibid. pp. 202-203.

[25] Ibid. pp. 204-205.

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