Reviews of

John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel

In Gospel of John, John, John Behr, Jonathan Rowlands, Oxford University Press on May 29, 2020 at 3:00 pm

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2020.05.09 | John Behr. John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. ISBN: 978-0-19-883753-4.

Review by Jonathan Rowlands, St. Mellitus College.

In this monograph, John Behr examines the conception of incarnation in John’s Gospel, and its connection to the Easter event. Behr’s central thesis is that “the Gospel, together with its Prologue, in fact pivots upon the Passion—it is a ‘paschal gospel’” (p. 5), such that the incarnation is not conceived of as “an episode in the biography of the Word” (p. 4, a phrase borrowed from Rowan Williams) but “the ongoing embodiment of God in those who follow Christ” (p. 5). He approaches this topic by engaging three different groups of readers: (1) the Church Fathers, (2) modern biblical scholars, and (3) little-known French phenomenologist Michel Henry. In doing so, Behr weaves a picture of John’s Christology that is both compelling and plausible, resulting in a work that will surely be essential reading for anyone concerned with the theological (or otherwise) interpretation of John’s Gospel.

Behr’s introduction offers some methodological discussion relevant for the task ahead, drawing largely upon Quentin Skinner’s “mythology of doctrine” (pp. 5-9) and Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Wirkungsgeschichte (pp. 9-11). In so doing, Behr seeks to walk a narrow line that resists eisegesis of later theological developments, whilst simultaneously acknowledging tradition as a constituent part of the interpretive process. He thus invokes a hermeneutic which prioritizes a “melding of horizons” (to use Gadamerian vocabulary), such that genuine dialogue the evangelist is attempted.

Following the introduction, Behr’s work proceeds in three sections, broadly corresponding with the three groups of readers, noted above. In the first, Behr engages in discussion of the historical context of John’s Gospel. In chapter one, three particularly noteworthy claims are made. First, that John the Elder (not the Apostle) is the evangelist, following the formation of a school of disciples around him (p. 63). Second, that the tradition of Pascha has Johannine origins, that “Pascha, as an annual feast, originated with John and was only celebrated by those of his ‘school’ until perhaps the mid-second century” (p. 92). Third, emphasis is given to Polycrates’ claim that John was “a priest wearing the petal [petalon],” that he was the high priest in the Jerusalem temple (building upon Bauckham). Thus, for Behr, John is “the high priest of the paschal mystery” (p. 98). In chapter 2, Behr engages specifically with Aston’s thesis that John’s Gospel is an “inverted apocalypse.” Here he advocates a reading of John as apocalyptic narrative suggesting that “the starting point for that narrative is in fact the end, Christ and his cross” (p. 128). More specifically, the gospel (i.e., the gospel broadly construed) “is preached as a mystery, hidden throughout the ages in the writings of Scripture, but now apocalyptically revealed” (p. 115).

In the second section, through a series of exegetical discussions, Behr advances the thesis that, for the fourth evangelist, the Temple has been (re)constructed in (or more accurately as) Jesus, a living human being (ch. 3). Behr claims that John presents this in correspondence to the six feasts in the Gospel, that in John 1.14, “Jesus is now the dwelling place of God among his people, and so replaces the Tabernacle and the Temple” (p. 140) and that this theme is present throughout the Gospel). In ch. 4, Behr connects Pilate’s words “behold the human being,” (John 19.5) to Gen. 1.26 (again extensively supported with patristic evidence), a connection he then brings to bear upon his discussion of the ascending and descending Son of Man (John 1.51). Finally in ch. 5, Behr discusses these issues specifically in relation to the Johannine prologue, attempting to disavow the reader of the view that the Prologue presents “the incarnation of a pre-existent, pre-incarnate divine being, called the Word, taking a body so that the invisible God now becomes visible in the flesh as Jesus Christ” (p. 246). Instead the Word, who was in the beginning with God, is equated, even at that point in John 1.1, with the crucified Jesus (p. 260).

Finally, in section three, Behr introduces the work of French phenomenologist Michel Henry. Despite this material being perhaps unfamiliar to many Biblical scholars, Behr’s clarity of prose ensures that an attentive reader will be able to follow the logic of his (and Henry’s) thought, to his credit. He engages Henry to make a number of points, notably that while “birth” normally means to come into existence, in the Johannine prologue “the birth of Christ is the birth of Life itself, life that, as we have seen, does not appear in the world” (p. 280). Thus, the incarnation makes available the opportunity to share in this Life, “to share in the pathos of his life, the pathos of Life that he is” (p. 281). Therefore, Behr suggests the “glory” of John 1.14 is, from the very beginning, the glory of Christ upon the cross (pp. 296–305).

Behr concludes by offering three principles that highlight the way his work serves as a “prologue to theology” (hence the book’s subtitle). First, that “the one Lord Jesus Christ with whom theology is concerned is always the crucified and risen one” (p. 324). Second, that the passion is central to this identification of the one Lord Jesus Christ, that “in and through the passion, the one Lord Jesus Christ becomes, as human, that which he, as God, always is” (p. 326). Third, that this has profound theological and anthropological implications, that the passion “shows us what it is to be God in the way he dies as human, simultaneously showing us what it is to be human” (p. 327).

There is much to commend about Behr’s work. His central thesis—that the incarnation is not to be conceived of merely (or at all) as an episodic event in the existence of the Logos—is compellingly argued and evidenced in detail, as is his instance that the crucified Jesus is the starting point of Johannine theology, not the end point. Moreover, when writing in exegetical mode, Behr is, as he frequently is, a careful and charitable reader of a text, able to draw out interpretations that seem sensible and faithful to the texts under discussion. His dialogue with Richard Hanson on the interpretation of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation is a particularly good example here (pp. 12–15).

Perhaps most impressive, however, is Behr’s demonstrable mastery of a wide range of material. Readers familiar with his other work will not be surprised by the depths of his patristic knowledge, but whether he is engaging with modern (historical-critical) Johannine scholarship or with the complex phenomenological writings of Henry, Behr’s prose demonstrates a clarity that only comes from a deep understanding of his sources. Given the potentially (and actually) disparate nature of these three spheres of scholarship, it is no small feat to see Behr navigate all three with aplomb.

While there is, to my mind, little to bemoan about Behr’s work, there are two areas to which certain readers might object. However, I suspect where most objections will emerge is not with Behr’s arguments per se, but the presuppositions upon which Behr constructs his arguments. First, and most obviously, readers who might favour a sharper distinction between “theology” and “biblical studies” (if such a division can still be maintained) might find some of Behr’s manoeuvrings difficult to accept; this is, after all, scripture interpreted in a primarily theological mode, rather than historical. This is made apparent by Behr himself when, for example, when he contrasts Bauckham’s historical reconstruction of the authorship of John with his own which, he writes, “could properly be called a theological interpretation” (p. 97). If one picks up this book hoping for a “purely historical” interaction with John’s Gospel, one will be disappointed. Second, and more specifically, other readers might question the faith Behr places in his patristic sources, that he sees too direct a connection between the author of John’s Gospel and the patristic witnesses, not least in ch. 1. Johannine scholars will be aware of the multitude of patristic evidence relevant to debates concerning the composition of the Gospel, but I doubt that everyone will agree that they are as useful for Johannine scholarship as does Behr.

However, even in such instances, one must accept that it is not the manoeuvrings themselves that cause problems, but the presuppositions behind them. In other words, disagreements with Behr’s work will likely be a result of (unspoken) disagreements over more fundamental questions, such the scope and purpose of biblical studies and historical-critical scholarship in general. For those readers who are seeking to ask theological questions of the biblical texts, Behr’s work will provide much to digest. It serves as an example of theological interpretation of scripture, of the highest order.

Jonathan Rowlands
St Mellitus College
jonny.rowlands [at] stmellitus.ac.uk

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