Reviewed by Patrick Schreiner
Karen Jobes’s commentary on the Johannine letters comes at a time when the “consensus among scholars of the past thirty years is crumbling, and a new [consensus on these letters] has not emerged yet” (13). There are a number of distinctives which relate to this crumbling of consensus.
First, and most notably, Jobes takes a non-polemical reading of the letters. She does not view the letters against the backdrop of Gnosticism, Docetism, or Cerinthianism, but still acknowledges that some disagreement has disrupted the churches. She argues there is not sufficient evidence to reconstruct the false teaching or even to show that the Epistle is exclusively or even primarily polemical. This allows her to avoid mirror reading and examine what the author is affirming, rather than having the background transpose into the foreground. Her view of the opponents are that certain people in the Johannine community have professed faith in Christ but deviated from orthodox Christology and disputed the claim that the locus of true knowledge about God and eternal life is centered on the historical incarnation of the Son of God (179). At times this view is refreshing, while at other times the interaction feels surface level as if more background would be helpful.
Second, Jobes works from the position that the author of John’s letters either was the same person who authored the Fourth Gospel or was a close associate. She seems to be following Yarborough in this emphasis. Jobes does not conclude they must be the same author, but points out the consistent syntax and word choice. The close association between the authors then allows her to work both backwards and forwards between the Gospel and the letters to see how mutual interpretation can benefit the reader. Jobes says, “while the letters must be allowed their own voice, they cannot be properly understood without reference to John’s gospel” (14).
Third, Jobes argues that 2 John was a cover letter to 1 John, and that is why some early canonical lists only put down two Johannine letters. This is not novel to Jobes, but it is a minority view.
Fourthly, Jobes allows for a range of interpretations on a number of cases, rather than identifying a sole referent. This is because the Johannine corpus is known for its abundant wordplays and double entendres. For example in 1 John 1:1 she allows the phrase “from the beginning” to have a variety of senses. It can point to 1) the preexistence of the Son, 2) the beginning of God’s redemptive work in human history, 3) and the beginning of the Christian gospel.
The structure of this commentary series has a variety of features. The highlighting of the “main point” of each section and the “in depth” boxes are helpful. Wide margins also allow for notes. However for the Johannine letters, the graphical layout and macro-structure are not very revealing due to the circular nature of the argument. Additionally, the “theology in application” will date these commentaries as time slides by.
Most readers will be interested in how Jobes interacts with a few of the problem passages in the letters. One of Jobes contributions is her argument for the name “Jesus Christ” being a proper name rather than a title in the Johannine corpus. Jobes thinks that when John wrote his gospel, the sense of “Christ” as Messiah has apparently declined because in John 1:41 he reminds his readers what “Christ” means. In the context of the letters it makes more sense for “Christ” to refer to his divine nature which points to John writing at least partially against those who deny the divine nature.
She translates hilasmos as “atoning sacrifice” saying that atonement for sin in John’s thought is not a reference to God’s anger, but to his love (79). This seems like a false distinction although I am not completely opposed to her translation. The alternative, propitiation, is a word that most readers will not understand.
The statement that everyone who remains in him “does not sin” in 1 John 3:6 and “are not able to sin” in 1 John 3:9 are difficult verses. Jobes rejects that this simply means that they cannot sin habitually because this interpretation does not do justice to the vigor of John’s argument. She follows Kruse is identifying sin with anomia and therefore this is about the sin that leads to eschatological judgment.
Another issue is John’s use of water and blood (5:6-8). She says the water reference as more obscure than the blood, arguing that John may have had multiple connotations, but they must revolve around the work of the Spirit, and probably more specifically Jesus’ baptism. Jobes thinks John uses the water in a double sense – first in reference to the way false teaching about the Spirit is being employed, and then in a correction that refers to the water and the blood as symbols of the atoning life of Jesus. The second occurrence of these terms breaks up the water and blood indicating there could be a misconstrual or affirmation of the water only symbol. But Jesus’ life must necessarily include the blood element.
Overall, Jobes could have focused more on the communal nature of the letter. She personalized too many of the statements neglecting that this was written to the entire church. She also could have dealt more with background issues such as hospitality in that era. Although she purposefully avoided mirror reading, more background information could have been employed.
This is one of the better commentaries on the Johannine letters aimed it seems to be written at either a seminary or pastoral level. It mixes exegetical insights with theological reflections. Jobes rightly sees this letter as an encouragement and affirmation to the church in the midst of schism and does not spend too much time trying to reconstruct exactly who the opponents were. She is careful with her exegetical conclusions and does not use one theory or piece of historical evidence to drive her conclusions. The book incorporates some of the recent developments in Johannine scholarship and interacts with them fairly but judiciously. She also employs John’s Gospel in a helpful but not overbearing way.
In sum, this commentary will be a good resource for many pastors and introduces scholars and students to some of the recent discussions in the Johannine literature. But if one wants more interaction with scholarly works on these letters, then its use is limited.
Patrick Schreiner is Instructor of New Testament Language and Literature, Western Seminary
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1, 2, 3 John - Exegetical Commentary On The New Testament