- John the Theologian and His Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology by John Behr
Relatively early in his Commentary on John, Origen unveils the key to understanding the truth of Scripture: one must become “another John.” As the disciple at the cross was revealed to be Mary’s son, so also one must “be shown to be another Jesus” (Comm. Jo. 1.23). While Origen’s point is explicitly rooted in the Fourth Gospel (cf. Jn. 19:26–27), it nonetheless demands a significant recalibration of how one understands the evangelist’s well-known assertion: “the Word became flesh” (Jn. 1:14) [End Page 225]
Such a recalibration is among John Behr’s primary tasks in this study of John’s gospel. “Melding” a variety of horizons by bringing ancient and modern voices into contact, Behr offers historical (Part I), exegetical (Part II), and phenomenological (Part III) explorations, each of which comprises a wide array of secondary and primary texts aimed at unveiling the Theologian’s Gospel for the gospel’s theologian.
Behr’s “introduction” serves as much more: it is an essay–indictment of modern theological trends that have so shaped the study of ancient texts (rather than vice versa). At centerstage is the common concept of “incarnation,” which nowadays frequently limits the range of meaning to a first-century “episode in the biography of the Word” (a Rowan Williams phrase that Behr repeats frequently). Such has misled generations of scholars—debilitated, Behr argues, by a “mythology of doctrines” (a Quentin Skinner phrase appearing almost as often)—to seek out where this concept of “incarnation” susurrates and surfaces in early Christian literature, while neglecting the ways in which the ancient sources themselves actually speak of the Word’s flesh.
Part I explores the lingering memories of the Gospel and its author amid the early “Johannine school” (chiefly amid Ignatius, Irenaeus, and Melito; not to be confused with the “Johannine community”). Behr demonstrates that John the author, not the same as John, the son of Zebedee, was variously called “the Elder” or “the Disciple” and was remembered as the “high priest of the paschal mystery” (98), the revealer of the mystery of God hidden in the Scriptures and the originator of Christian paschal observances. Given this early reception, the Gospel is, according to Behr, fittingly called an “apocalyptic gospel,” but, given that what is unveiled—God and his temple, the human being—is unveiled definitively and finally at the cross, “it is more appropriate . . . to designate John as a ‘paschal gospel.’” (110)
Part II comprises an exegetical examination of the Gospel and the completion of God’s building of the “temple,” the human being, revealed therein. Behr demonstrates that John not only presents Christ as the temple, but “the believer and the community” as well (176), and in both cases, the building of this “temple” (the human being)—which stems from “God’s project announced from the beginning” (219)—is fully revealed and brought to completion by “the Passion of Christ and its opening of Scriptures” (176). Chiefly for this reason, Behr regularly contends that one cannot separate “incarnation” from “passion.” The latter, as shown especially in the Eucharist, is the former; “the way up and the way down” are “one and the same” (218–19). It is in this light that Part II concludes with a rereading of John’s Prologue. These eighteen verses, Behr argues, do not lend themselves to “a narrative beginning with a figure called the Word who later on becomes Jesus Christ,” but rather encapsulate the whole work of Christ and particularly his passion. The Prologue is, quite simply, “a hymn about Jesus Christ, speaking about him and his work in various ways” (252). In the way that the end is thus unveiled at the beginning (and, in good apocalyptic fashion, vice versa), one cannot help but call to mind the words of T. S. Eliot: “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time” (Little Gidding).