Johannes BEUTLER, SJ. A Commentary on the Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2017. pp. 623. $90.00 ($65.68 Amazon) hb. ISBN 978-0-8028-7336-1. Reviewed by Dolores L. CHRISTIE, Shaker Heights, OH 44122.


One knows that a book is really good when it awakens the imagination of the reader to creative ideas beyond the volume’s actual content. This is one such book. It is excellent: thorough, insightful, and fresh. Beutler is at home with John. Not only the text itself but the author’s extensive personal bibliography, included among the book’s thorough references, demonstrate that he is a seasoned scholar. Further, he is someone who, after decades of publications on the gospel, still has something new to say.

The author’s methodology focuses on the document itself, a move away from an historical-critical approach to the “relecture” method of today’s scholars. Beutler notes, “Before any venture into the world outside the text, it is advisable to search in the text itself.” (357) Although at this place in the book he is discussing the sayings of Jesus, the quote is applicable to his method throughout the commentary. He accepts the theory of redaction, but prefers to look at the layers of the final text in a fresh way. He is exquisitely familiar with other scholarly work, including the conclusions of various “schools” of thought (mentioning the Swiss, German, Louvain schools, for example as well as insights gained from professional meetings), and the gospel’s multilevel and metaphoric meanings. He presents a thorough review of others’ conclusions, sometimes agreeing and sometimes drawing different conclusions. He is not shy in offering his unique thoughts on a passage, often in first person.

Assuming the reader’s facility with Greek (he does not offer many translations) Beutler parses the word choice and the grammar of each pericope--sometimes each sentence--as well as its nuances of time and specific place. The “darkness and light” theme, hinting at Gnostic influences, is not new; but I had never noticed before that the Jeanine “signs” do not take place in Jerusalem. Is this a hint to the community’s animus against the authoritative Jewish leadership of the time?

Beutler highlights some intriguing connections and illusions to the Hebrew scripture. Clearly the author(s) of John knew and exploited what the audience of the late first century would have held deep in their DNA. Placing the encounter with the Samaritan woman at a well (where so many ancestors met their brides) and noting her discarded “five husbands” (alluding to the five books of Torah, rejected by the mixed-race Samaritans). Certainly this assumed knowledge of Jewish history argues against the conclusion that John is anti-Semitic. Rather, the community was deeply rooted in both Jewish ethnicity and religion, even while dealing with the pain of separation from the synagogue after the destruction of the second temple (c. 85 C. E.) and the purifying reorganization of Judaism.

It is interesting that he sees liturgical overtones in Chapter 13. Most commentators see either no “institution narrative” in John or locate it in Chapter 6. Beyond the account of a final supper with disciples, Beutler postulates a Eucharistic meaning to the chapter, not in a change of bread into body, but to spotlight egalitarian service to others as central to the worshiping community. The slave-like washing of the feet takes on an important meaning for the later community. On the other hand he disputes the common acceptance of the blood and water that flow from Jesus’ corpse as a sacramental allusion.

I have only one picky negative comment. When discussing Jesus’ acceptance of “vinegar” as he is dying, Beutler concludes that Jesus’ willingness to drink the sour offering was the desire to “taste the bitterness of suffering to the last drop.” (490) This conclusion re-enforces the common?and I believe erroneous?pious belief that there is intrinsic value in suffering.

Maestro Beutler takes a familiar work and conducts with expertise passages that many others have performed. As he turns each page of the “score,” he does so with a meticulous passion as well as clear knowledge of others’ renderings. Nevertheless, he is able to find something new. The book represents not only a career of intimate association with John but a knowledge and fresh take on its many twists and turns. Clearly it is written for the scholar, but?as the back cover commentary notes?it may be useful to the diligent homilist or catechist. Although the English version is a translation, it is readable. Though not an easy read for the novice, even they will delight in the precision of the author’s discussion. Scholars will find some new things to think about in this most complex of the four canonical gospels. This reviewer did not expect to be excited by another commentary of the familiar fourth gospel. She was pleasantly surprised.