Monday, October 11, 2010

J. Ramsey Michaels Interview Part I

Once in awhile I will pick up a book I have trouble putting down. The same cannot be said for the genre of commentaries. Commentaries by nature lend themselves to be mined for specific texts, and often include technical information that speaks above the reader. Or as often the case with a commentary, they become a commentary on commentaries, reporting what others have said about particular issues but very limited concerning original contributions.

Ramsey Michaels
If you desire a commentary that reads like a novel, while at the same time contributing stimulating exegetical discussions, J. Ramsey Michaels' The Gospel of John (NICNT, Eerdmans) is for you. I recently had the good fortune of reading through the commentary in its pre-publication stage and found myself in awe of this
page-turner. This also afforded me the opportunity to interview J. Ramsey Michaels about his contribution, 17 years in the making. This is part I of the interview.

1) You have written the replacement volume for John's Gospel in the NICNT (Leon Morris' contribution appeared 40 years ago). Do you recall your initial reaction when receiving the offer to do so?

Well, it was nineteen years ago. But I do remember being excited and honored to be asked. I had great respect for the NICNT series. Ned Stonehouse, the first general editor had been my mentor at Westminster Seminary, my friend Bill Lane had been an outstanding early contributor, and Gordon Fee, friend and colleague, was the current general editor. And I had always admired Leon Morris’ contribution, which I felt was somewhat underestimated by the guild.

2) How did your experience in teaching John's Gospel to seminarians throughout the years shape this present volume?

Enormously. It had required me to think about virtually every verse in the Gospel, not just the ones I had written articles about. This influence was present already in the earlier, more popular commentary that had been published by Harper in 1984 and Hendrickson in 1989. As I recall I dedicated that volume to my former students over the years. At least three of them have since written fine commentaries of their own on John.

3) You have written commentaries on 1 Peter, Revelation, Hebrews, and a more popular level commentary on John's Gospel. Could you give a glimpse on your process in writing a commentary, particularly with regards to your latest?

I work with the text and only the text at first, trying to discern the narrative flow, and forming my own impressions of what is going on. Only when I have formed these impressions and spotted the areas in which I still have significant questions do I turn to the commentaries and secondary literature to see to what extent these authors have the same impressions I do. Sometimes one or more of them changes my mind, sometimes not. As I go along, I notice if something I discover compels me to modify what I said earlier. Early on, I develop some sense of how long this thing is supposed to be, and try to tailor my comments accordingly. I have been pleasantly surprised that they usually come out to about the right length or detail – even though I confess, this one is a tad long.

4) Many might be surprised that you have listed Rudolf Bultmann's commentary on John as the most "useful of all" (xi). What made his work so influential in the process of writing this commentary?

As for Bultmann, it was only when I was well into this commentary (not the earlier one) that I discovered how impressive Bultmann actually is. As I say, he is admired and celebrated for all the wrong reasons. The devil is in the details, and his eye for detail is unsurpassed. His source theories are dead so far as I am concerned, but his value is in the crunch time of sheer plodding verse by verse grammatical and contextual exegesis. Not that he is always right, but that one always has to take account of what he says and deal with it. Sometimes he deals with it by discarding what he has found, but there is no reason to follow his example in that respect. In short, he is in general a reliable reader of the Gospel in its present form, even though he is all too eager to change it.

5) Describe the importance of eschewing source criticism in favor of commenting on John's Gospel as we have it presently.

Quite simply, the sources are not “John,” any more than Shakespeare’s sources are Shakespeare. Analyzing Shakespeare’s sources is no substitute for actually reading the Bard. In the case of John, the temptation to focus on the sources is greater because lurking in the background is the question of the historical Jesus and “what really happened.” That is of course a worthy and legitimate enterprise, but in my judgement not what a commentary is about. On the other hand I did not entirely neglect the sources. I tried to keep them mostly in the footnotes, and to concentrate on what the Gospel author did with them rather than on the sources for their own sake.

6) Your approach is to view John's Gospel at the literary level (i.e. 'plot,' 'characterization', point of view). How does this approach help advance our understanding of the Johannine Gospel? Could you provide an example?

This is sort of a corollary to the preceding question. I guess I do that simply because that is the way a reader, any reader, reads the Gospel (or any other work of literature for that matter). And whatever else he is, the commentator is a reader. Some might object that John is history, not literature. I would answer that this does not make it any less literature, and literature deserves a “literary” reading. John McPhee, one of America’s finest writers of nonfiction, for years gave a course at Princeton on “The Literature of Fact.” Not surprisingly, his nonfiction books are often incorrectly displayed in bookstores under Fiction. In short, just because something is true, doesn’t mean it can’t be a good read.

Examples? That’s harder. For one, I used to hold, and still suspect, that there were “originally” (whatever that means) two farewell discourses, 13:36-14:31 and 15:1-16:33 (or 17:26), differing from each other in subtle ways. But I had to ask, did anyone ever actually read it that way? If not, my job is simply to point out the possibility, not rewrite the text. The text is what it is. Whether historically exact or not, it is without question literature, and shares with all good literature such things as plot, characterization and the rest.


Sookgoo Shin said...

Compared to Carson's work on John, which one would you recommend for a M. Div student? Thank you.

Ben T. said...


The NICNT series has more of an academic bent than the PNTC series.

It is tough to say which would be "better," though. Carson is a very able exegete, and his commentary is top-notch! The PNTC series is geared a little more towards pastors, but both series' are conservative and reliable.

I have used Carson's commentary extensively, and am obviously only superficially familiar with Michaels' (hefty) new volume.

If you're able, get both!

(Perhaps someone else who reads this will have more helpful insight!)

Matthew D. Montonini said...


I agree with Benjamin. Although I confess I do not own Carson's work, it is still considered one of the better John commentaries out there.

But for me, having read through Michaels' work, this commentary will be the standard bearer for John's Gospel for at least the next decade. It is that good. No one is as perceptive at dealing with John on a literary or a narratival level as Michaels is.

Brian said...

is it possible you could find out from Michaels if he deals with the chronology of the temple cleansing as compared to the synoptics and if not why he chose to not really address it? It's not like it would have taken a lot to share his thoughts on it. Thanks

Also, Joseph, you should also consider Keener's 2 volume work on John as well, it's mostly academic and good for that kind of work.

Matthew D. Montonini said...

Brian-- Check out the next part (II) of the interview, where I ask him precisely that.

Thanks for stopping by!