Table of Contents of Latest Issue
Index of All Issues
Index of Book Reviews
Instructions for Contributors
Subscribe to
Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 65, 2017

MARGARET DALY-DENTON, John: An Earth Bible Commentary: Supposing Him to Be the Gardener (Earth Bible Commentary; London: Bloomsbury T& T Clark, 2017). Pp xvi + 247. Hardback. £69.99; ebook £66.50.

Margaret Daly-Denton’ previous work on John (David in the Fourth Gospel: The Johannine Reception of the Psalms, 1999) has shown her skilful use and knowledge of the Old Testament, and this new commentary is no exception. The prose is rich and sensitive to the many instances in the Gospel referring to the natural world, e.g. light, water, air, soil, wind, linen, sheep, and doves. The commentary, in the Earth Bible Series, has an obvious hermeneutical stance that builds upon excellent exegesis, although this is usually less obvious but readily recognisable by Johannine scholars. Reading through this ‘earth’ lens opens up numerous new perspectives that have not been thoroughly examined previously, the most obvious being the creation theme in the Fourth Gospel, and the relationship between the “king,” the Temple and the royal garden. When examining the story of the Samaritan Woman the focus is on the living water being offered for life. Here, D-D brings into the discussion the possibility of water being used rather than wine in some Eucharists, looking beyond the Gospel for evidence that this was a practice in some early communities. Eucharistic bread and water was a means of communion with Jesus and his offer of living water.

Along with an awareness of the land and the Sea of Tiberius, D-D offers insight into the social, culinary, and economic lives of the people, particularly the villagers utterly dependent on the impoverished soil, intermittent rains and burdened by taxation. In discussing the great feeding of John 6, D-D is able to show links with the ‘garden of Eden’ in the motif of Wisdom as the tree of life, and the contrast between the fruit of this tree forbidden lest Adam and Eve die, and the bread from heaven given so “one may eat and not die” (6:50). She follows Bultmann‘s interpretation of the words about ‘eating flesh and drinking blood’ as a redactional interpretation of the preceding discourse, by a different hand—others may disagree on this point. This discussion highlights that among the early communities there were different forms of Eucharistic worship prior to one established form shaped by Paul and the institution narratives of the Synoptics.

Each chapter concludes with a section, “What must we do to perform the works of God? (John 6.28).” Here, D-D explores the implications of an earth-sensitive reading for the twenty-first century with all our issues of climate change, extinctions, soil degradation, pollution, greed and famine. These sections offer a new ethical reading of the Gospel that fills out the ‘love’ command, to include the love of earth and all her life forms.

As the Jewish pilgrim festivals all had their origins in ancient harvest festivals, D-D’s treatment of Tabernacles is particularly informative of some facts about the Pool of Siloam and the water system of Jerusalem. Points usually overlooked. Once again she draws on Jewish mythology about Jerusalem as the earth’s navel and the association of Temple and the King’s garden, now verified by archaeological findings around the Pool. D-D’s broader knowledge of the early Patristic writings as well as Jewish Midrash enriches her interpretation of the difficult verses John 7:37–39. She favours an allusion to the water flowing from the rock struck by Moses. In the context of Tabernacles she provides much background on shepherding and sheep.

In the Passion/Resurrection narrative D-D gives attention to the significance of the Garden that is only mentioned in the Fourth Gospel, and to the water that flows from Jesus’ side (19:34), raising the possibility that “and blood” was a copyist’s addition. This flowing water, with allusions to Zech 13:1 and Ezek 47, are waters of rebirth for the whole of creation. Jesus’ anointing with an extravagant amount of spices indicates that this is a royal burial. When Jesus encounters Mary Magdalene she ironically identifies him as a “gardener,” which in fact he is—the royal gardener.

Much in this book resonates with my own approach in looking to the Jewish Scriptures, intertestamental literature, the Targums and Midrash to fill out the symbolic and theological world of the first century. While I do not agree with all D-D’s conclusions, her many insights and references are worth taking notice of and following up. Her work, in keeping with this series, opens up for readers the natural world mostly either overlooked or taken for granted. Electronic biblical research and writing has removed us for the earthiness of paper, manuscript, and papyrus. This would be a very good addition to a Johannine library, offering insights and references not usually considered.

Review by
Yarra Theological Union