Book review

The Gospel According to St. John : The Greek Text with Introduction and Notes
B.F.Westcott
Oregon : Wipf & Stock, 2004 (1908). Vol. I: 479 pp, Vol II: 393 pp.

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Generally speaking Bible commentaries can be divided into three categories. That is, devotional, exegetical based on the Spanish or English text and exegetical based on the Greek text. For those preparing sermons and who have studied some Greek or Hebrew, commentaries based on the original language are the most useful. It enables the preacher to get closer to the message in the text and often gives him fresh ideas.

The name of B.F. Westcott (1825-1901) is associated with the Westcott-Hort Greek New Testament (1881) which has been influential as the basis for modern Bible translations such as the New International Version. But he was no narrow-minded academic, he promoted foreign missions and four of his sons served in India .

His commentaries of are a model of exactness and close attention to the text. His work on the Greek of John took 40 years to produce and is one of the best commentaries of its type. Its strength lies in the brevity of style and clarity of analysis along with much important exegetical detail. He engages with difficulties in the text, for instance the problems of the actual day of the last supper ( Jn. 13:1 cf. 19:31 ) or how the reference to the Father being greater than the Son ( Jn. 14:28 ) is to be interpreted.

Although in his day he was regarded as a liberal, his approach is one that is conservative in following the text and upholding the divinity of Christ, as well as accepting the traditional views of its authorship and setting. He is far removed from the critical modernist approaches of Bultmann and Käsemann. The big disadvantage of Westcott’s book is that it was written over 100 years ago.

There are almost 700 pages of comments in English on the Greek text. Each section usually has an introductory analysis to each literary section of John followed by a verse by verse commentary on the Greek text.

Preceding this are 95 pages of introductory essays. These essays include detailed comments on the history of the text of John’s gospel, its literary style, a comparison of the gospel with the synoptics, the Johannine letters, and, more unusually, a comparison with Revelation. It is interesting that he supports the Johannine authorship of this book, a view which has not always been popular amongst academics.

There are 29 “Additional Notes” providing amplification of particular points such as “The Work of Christ in Samaria ”, “Jewish Rules for the Conduct of Trials” and “The Words used to denote the Mission of Christ”. Westcott also provides notes on the textual variants of 31 different verses. The publishers have produced the commentary in two paperback volumes, which are well bound.

Typical of Westcott is the following commentary on the phrase in John 2:16 : τòν οìκον του πατρóς (My father’s house):

Compare Luc. 2:49 (εìς τοîς του πατρóς μου). The specialty of the title (my Father’s house, not our Father’s house) must be noticed. When Christ finally left the temple ( Matt. 24:1 ) He spoke of it to the Jews as your house ( Matt. 23:38 ); the people had claimed and made their own what truly belonged to God. It must be observed also that the Lord puts forth His relation to God as the fact from which His Messiahship might be inferred. This formed the trial of faith.” (vol. 1, p. 91)

And on 14:6 he comments on the word μοναì (mansions):

The rendering comes form the Vulgate mansions, which were resting-places, and especially the “stations” on a great road where travellers found refreshment. This appears to be the true meaning of the word here; so that the contrasted notions of repose and progress are combined in this vision of the future. The word μονή   occurs in the New Testament only here and in v. 23. (vol. 2, p. 167).

With the work being based in the late 19 th century it means that contemporary issues such as the debate over the relevance of the Dead Sea Scrolls, over John’s Christology and examining it’s narrative structure are not touched upon.

Westcott lived in a world where pastors not only used their Greek New Testaments but could easily follow quotations in Latin, of which this commentary has quite a number.

This is no superficial writing. It selects the important parts of the text and aims to explain them using New Testament Greek and an awareness of the opinion of previous experts. The result is that those who use this commentary will find an excellent teacher and so will be, God willing, more effective in their preaching.

David E. C. Ford

Profesor del Nuevo Testamento, Fundación Universitaria Seminario Bíblica de Colombia, Medellín, Colombia