Reviews of

The Shema in John’s Gospel

In Christology, Gospel of John, John, Lori A. Baron, Mohr Siebeck, R. B. Jamieson, Shema on February 24, 2023 at 3:00 pm
Cover of book

2023.02.04 | Lori A. Baron. The Shema in John’s Gospel. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament. 2. Reihe, 574. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2022.

Review by R. B. Jamieson, Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Washington, DC.

What causes John’s Gospel to stand out when set against the backdrops of the Synoptic Gospels, the whole New Testament, and early Judaism? In The Shema in John’s Gospel, a revision of the author’s PhD thesis submitted to Duke University in 2015, Lori A. Baron argues that one key factor is John’s unique development of the theology and ethics of the Shema.

After a brief introduction, the book surveys the role of the Shema in Deuteronomy (Ch. 2), the rest of the Hebrew Bible (Ch. 3), Second Temple literature (Ch. 4), the New Testament minus John (Ch. 5), and, finally, the Gospel of John, first considering chapters 5, 8, and 10 (Ch. 6), then the Farewell Discourse (Ch. 7). A brief conclusion considers the Shema’s role in John’s account of the crucifixion, John’s oft-alleged “anti-Judaism,” and the Johannine prologue. 

This breadth of focus makes for both gains and losses. The gains include providing the reader with a sense of the link current in early Judaism between the confession of YHWH’s oneness, the unity of YHWH’s people, and the ethical entailments of exclusive loyalty to YHWH (though a similar treatment is available in, e.g., Erik Waaler’s monograph on the Shema in 1 Corinthians).[1] As to losses, a notable one is that a 216-page monograph on John’s Gospel spends only 72 pages on John. This leaves some exegetical contributions relatively undeveloped. For instance, Baron argues regarding John 10:33–36 that John’s distinctive theology of Jesus as the Word helps explain Jesus’s appeal to Ps 82:6 in which the “word of God” came to the people. Since this intriguing suggestion is certainly a minority view, it could have done with fuller substantiation than the paragraph it received (p. 182). 

Baron’s primary aim is to argue for two theses, namely, “that (1) themes of the Shema are presented in a novel way in John’s Gospel, and (2) these Johannine innovations have resulted from a bitter conflict between believers in Jesus and non-Christian Jews in the late first century, a conflict over Jesus’s identity that is expressed through a novel interpretation of one of the most sacred Jewish texts” (p. 2). In my judgment, Baron demonstrates her first thesis convincingly, but her second is more asserted than proved. Even the form of its wording just cited betrays an ambiguity. Did the novel interpretation of the Shema arise from the conflict, or the conflict from the novel interpretation? If the conflict preceded the novel interpretation, when exactly did the novel interpretation arise, and is it unique to the Johannine community and Gospel? Baron acknowledges that in Mark 2 and 10, for instance, the Shema is “bound up with” Jesus’ identity (p. 108), but it seems to me that she undersells how “high” a Christology Mark’s use of the Shema indicates.

In my view the strongest, freshest material in Baron’s treatment of John is her discussion of how, in the Farewell Discourse, Jesus fulfills all the actions of YHWH that are stated or implied in the Shema: he chooses a people for himself, loves them, demands their wholehearted allegiance, issues commandments to the people, and gives life to those who obey his commandments. In an argument parallel to Chris Tilling’s work on Paul’s divine Christology, Baron rightly argues that this complex of actions demonstrates Jesus’s “unity with the Father” (p. 189). Hence Baron’s apt phrasing, “Throughout the Farewell Discourse, Jesus continues to speak and act from within the divine אהד as YHWH’s appointed King, who commands love, gives life, and issues his own commandment” (p. 188). And in a key summary, Baron concludes that John interprets the Shema Christologically, such that “YHWH is one” is now understood as “the Father and Jesus are one.” Therefore, the command to love God in Deuteronomy 6:5 “now includes believing in and loving Jesus and loving fellow believers in Jesus” (p. 207).

The work’s other substantive chapter on John focuses on divine unity and oneness in John 5, 8, and 10. I found the general drift of the exegesis on target, but the treatment of a number of passages somewhat lacking. For instance, Baron says that John 5:19–20 indicates that Jesus “is authorized by the Father to act in the Father’s behalf” (p. 157; cf. p. 162). But the conclusion of 5:19b is not that Jesus does what the Father authorizes, but that he does all the same things that the Father does. Jesus’s self-defense claims not that he has permission to act for the Father, but power to act from the Father, and therefore to perform the same works as the Father. In this context it is notable that Baron’s treatment of John 5:17–30 makes only passing reference to 5:26, and glosses it as follows: “the eternal life found in him has been given him by the Father” (p. 162). This seems to use “eternal life” univocally, suggesting an identity between the eternal life Jesus has and the eternal life Jesus gives to his follows. But this fails to measure up to the claim of the text, which is that Jesus possesses the uniquely divine self-existent life, “life in himself.” This “life in himself” is what enables him to speak both the physically and spiritually dead back into life, at will (5:21, 24–25). That Jesus performs these resurrections “as he wills” (5:21) means that it is insufficient to gloss this action, as Baron does, as a “prerogative” or “privilege” given him by the Father (pp. 157, 170). The prerogative or privilege depends ontologically on possessing a power; Jesus says not that the Father gave him permission to raise the dead but that the Father has given him the unique divine life by which alone one could perform such a feat. 

What is lacking in Baron’s account is a conceptual grammar by which one could hold together and integrate two Johannine givens: Jesus’s unity with the Father and his relationship of origin from the Father. Instead, Baron repeats Barrett’s too-frequently-recycled assertion that John balances “subordinationist and exalted Christologies” (p. 163, n. 48). Here a fuller treatment of John 17:11–12 would have proved fruitful.[2] Similar to her treatment of 5:26, Baron glosses the giving of the divine name in 17:11–12 as describing “the transmission of the divine life from Father to Son to believers” (p. 194, n. 22). But it is only the Son, not believers, who receive the divine name. Jesus “manifests” and “makes known” this name (17:6; 26); he does not confer it. If this is a name that only Jesus receives, when did he receive it, and what came with it? 

The space I have given to criticism might mislead. This is a solid, capable work that makes a worthwhile contribution to the study of John’s theology and ethics. With caveats and qualifications like those detailed above, I nevertheless commend it to the consideration of students of John’s Gospel. 

R. B. Jamieson
Capitol Hill Baptist Church
bobbyjamieson [at]

[1] Erik Waaler, The Shema and the First Commandment in First Corinthians, WUNT II/253 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008).

[2] As would interaction with the treatment of, e.g., Charles A. Gieschen, “The Divine Name in Ante-Nicene Christology,” VC 57 (2003): 115–58, at 135–40.


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