Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Favorite Commentaries: General Epistles and the Revelation to John

1 & 2 Peter, Jude

The canonical order, of course, is for the 3 Epistles of John to be placed between 2 Peter and Jude.  But Peter  and Jude are obviously connected literarily and theologically in great detail and both are so brief they are almost always treated together.

Once more, a confession:  These books have played only a small part in my theology and I have usually only read them when teaching NT survey courses.  So, I have not read many commentaries on them and my “favorites” here should be given much less weight than in areas of Scripture (indicated in previous posts) where I have done far more study.

1, 2, 3 John

In pre-critical times, it was nearly universally believed that the Apostle John wrote the Gospel of John, all 3 Epistles ascribed to him, and the Apocalypse or Book of Revelation–the only one of these books to name an author.  But literary and theological differences make it unlikely that all 5 books were written by one person, though they all seem to be related closely enough that scholars have posited a “Johannine School” or “Johannine tradition.”  I’m a cautious sort and believe that weight ought to be given to ancient tradition unless overwhelmed by contrary evidence. I think at least an early version of the Gospel was written by John the Apostle (the double endings suggest revision after the apostle died, but I wouldn’t go with a stronger word than “suggest”), and that the same hand wrote the Epistles.  Revelation is very different and, although it is possible to ascribe the differences to use of a different “amaneunsis” or secretary, it is likely that “John of Patmos” was an exiled elder from the Johannine churches with the same (common) name as the Apostle.  But I don’t think authorship opinions should take on creedal status or deeply affect the interpretation of the material. My 2 cents.

  • Rudolf Bultmann, The Johannine Epistles (Hermeneia:  A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible) (Augsburg-Fortress, 1973).  Bultmann sees Johannine Christianity as sectarian and proto-gnostic. I disagree, but everyone should wrestle with this classic commentary.
  • Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Johannine Epistles (Herder & Herder, 1992).  A contemporary critical Catholic perspective.
  • D. Moody Smith, First, Second, and Third John (Interpretation: A Commentary for Teaching and Preaching) (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992).
  • Marianne Meye Thompson, 1-3 John (IVP Commentaries) (IVP, 1992).
  • David Rensberger, First, Second, and Third John (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries) (Abingdon Press, 1997). 

The Apocalypse or Revelation to John

Growing up, I hated the Book of Revelation. It was the 1970s, and Hal Lindsey’s Late, Great Planet Earth nonsense was all the rage.  TV preachers used it as a reason to preach hate and war or for endless speculation on “the end times.” I watched churches become obsessed and began to think that Reformers like John Calvin showed great wisdom in refusing to write commentaries on it.  I believed (and still do) in the parousia or “Second Coming” of Jesus, but I had no desire to take sides in debates over premillenialism vs. postmillenialism vs. amillenialism.

Later, learning more about Revelation as a form of apocalyptic writing and designed as both reassurance and instruction for nonviolent resistance to the Roman empire, I came to love the Book of Revelation.  It is very practical and helpful for the church today–even if constantly abused by Dispensationalists and “Christian Zionists.”

Commentaries that highlight the socio-political dimensions of Revelation:

  • David E. Aune, Revelation 1-5 (Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 52a) (Thomas Nelson, 1997); Revelation 6-16 (Word Biblical Commentary vol. 52b) (Thomas Nelson, 1998); Revelation 17-22 (Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 52c) (Thomas Nelson, 1998).  Excellent critical commentary that is almost too detailed.
  • Brian K. Blount, Revelation:  A Commentary (New Testament Library) (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009).  An excellent commentary by the President and Professor of NT of Union Seminary-Presbyterian School of Christian Education.  He previously taught at Princeton Theological Seminary.
  • Brian K. Blount, Can I Get a Witness? Reading Revelation through African American Culture (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2005).
  • Allan A. Boesak, Comfort and Protest:  The Apocalypse from a South African Context (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1987).  The experience of oppression, as in apartheid-era South Africa, often leads to insights into Revelation since it grew out of similar context.  It’s in the hands of rich and powerful people that Revelation becomes a dangerous book.
  • G. B. Caird, The Revelation of St. John the Divine (Black’s New Testament Commentaries) (A & C Black Publishers, Ltd., 1966). In the U.S. this was published by Harper & Row as part of Harper’s New Testament Commentaries, but I found mine in a used theological bookstore from the original British printing.  Long out of print, I’ve found this older commentary to be very useful, especially in highlighting the nonviolent, peacemaking, aspects of the book. (I must also say that I miss “Theologue” the used bookstore in Louisville that specialized in buying and selling used books on religion and theology related topics.  With 2 seminaries in town, it was a pearl of great price!)
  • Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza,  The Book of Revelation:  Justice and Judgment (Fortress Press, 1985) and Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Revelation:  Vision of a Just World (Proclamation Commentaries) (Fortress Press, 1991, rev. ed., 1998).  Two excellent commentaries by the pioneer of feminist New Testament studies. Even if you have many objections to her other writings, you should not miss Schüssler Fiorenza’s excellent work on the Book of Revelation.
  • Mitchell G. Reddish, Revelation (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentaries) (Smyth & Helwys Press, 2001) with CD Rom.  Very well done.  Counteracts much terrible writing and preaching on Revelation, tackles many tricky technical issues, but is accessible to the general reader.
  • Pablo Richard, Apocalypse:  A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation, trans. Philip Berryman (Orbis Books, 1995; Repr. Wipf and Stock, 2005).  Brilliant commentary from a Latin American Liberation Theology perspective.
  • Charles H. Talbert, The Apocalypse: A Reading of the Revelation to John (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994).
  • John R. Yeatts, Revelation ( A Believers Church Bible Commentary) (Herald Press, 2003).

Additional studies (not commentaries) that are helpful:

Final thought: If, you are a pastor or other minister responsible for regular preaching of the Word and you shy away from preaching on the Book of Revelation because of bad associations with the “Left Behind” crowd, you are NOT doing your people good. The only cure for bad theology is better theology.  So, read up, and preach Revelation as the radical guide to nonviolent discipleship in a context of imperial persecution that it is and always has been!

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September 28, 2010 - Posted by | Bible, Biblical interpretation, blog series, book reviews

3 Comments »

  1. Re: GJohn et al.

    I’m on this “the beloved disciple was Lazarus” kick, who wrote the majority of the gospel and 1-2 John, which the elder John edited (the third being written by the elder himself).

    I’m more certain about the gospel than about the letters though (but there’s just so much overlap between them).

    Comment by Chris Donato | September 29, 2010 | Reply

    • It’s an old idea, recently revived by Vernard Eller. The problem is that with unsigned documents the internal evidence of literary relations gets you only so far. For the rest, you’re stuck with either (a) ancient traditions (which unanimously say the Beloved Disciple and the author were John), (b) maintaining a scholarly agnosticism concerning the authorship, or (c) asserting your favorite alternative (e.g., Lazarus) with less to go on than the traditional authorship claims.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 29, 2010 | Reply

  2. I read of it first from Witherington, but distinctly remember Eller’s name being invoked.

    Any one of the choices you’ve mentioned above sound good to me.

    Comment by Chris Donato | September 29, 2010 | Reply


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