Thursday, January 7, 2010

Book review

History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel

Author: J. Louis Martyn
Publisher: Westminster John Knox, 2003
Paperback: xvii + 182 pp.


Thanks to Emily Kiefer and the folks at Westminster John Knox for this review copy! I lament this is way overdue because I've been swamped with finals and traveling and getting engaged. Anyway, this book is part of the New Testament Library series, which seems to have a pretty good lineup of scholars writing commentaries on the NT as well as 'Classics' (which this book falls under) and 'General Studies.' J. Louis Martyn's perspective as seen in this book is setting John against Jewish (not Christian) background. There are two major assumptions for Martyn as an impetus for his understanding the Gospel of John: (1) the prevalence of the hostility of "the Jews" toward Jesus & co. representing a genuine historical setting and (2) that this setting could not be that of Jesus and his original opponents. As D. Moody Smith writes in the foreword, "Martyn is actually invoking the modern, form-critical principle that the Gospels bear testimony primarily to the life-setting in which they were produced, and only secondarily to their subject matter."

Martyn states that the problem that often plagues any interpreter of the Gospel of John is the tendency to read this Gospel apart from its original setting. He lists a slew of questions that he will attempt to answer such as: In what general thought-world did John move? Whom did he wish to have as his readers and for what purpose? Where did he live? And as far as method is concerned, Martyn wants to focus on how exactly 'traditional material' has been assumed and reinterpreted by John.

Martyn begins in chapter 1 with a form-critical analysis of John 9. The rest of the book is largely devoted to establishing his thesis of the 'two-level drama' that seems to play itself out in the Gospel of John. Basically, Martyn sees within the fourth Gospel not just facts about the times of Jesus' day but also that of the evangelist and the circumstances surrounding his own life. Martyn understands the motivation for writing the Gospel to have stemmed from a major fallout between the leaders of the Jewish synagogue and the local Christian community.

I think one interesting section of this book is the one titled 'Glimpses into the History of the Johannine Community.' It seems to be an essay which he printed earlier that was included in this book. In this section he traces the development of the Johannine community starting from the 'Early Period' that developed within the synagogue, the 'Middle Period' with its excommunication from the synagogue followed by martyrdom of some of its members, and the 'Late Period,' with the community forming its own theological and sociological identity.

This book was definitely challenging because it assumes one to be well versed in the discussions surrounding the Fourth Gospel. Not only that, Martyn seems to take the reader down many different rabbit holes, filled with many brilliant ideas that are nonetheless conjectures. I think this book is one that I will definitely pick up again in the future to think deeply about the situation surrounding the Gospel of John, and for those interested in that sort of thing, this seems to be a must-read.

EDIT (Jan. 22, 2010): This book would have been much easier and more enjoyable to read if I read Raymond Brown's introduction first...

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