When John connects the Word in John 1 to the words of creation in Genesis 1, John Behr sees the completion of the project of God—the creation of the human being. The perfection of the human being happens not as we might expect but in the Passion of Christ which includes not just the cross but the entire scope of the gospel story.
To reach his conclusion, Behr joins the horizons of history, reception history (later interpretation), and phenomenology (specifically, of Michel Henry). While he may not explicitly state it, Behr throughout synthesizes the various horizons to make a case for the revelation of Jesus, the Word of God, at the cross. And through his life-giving flesh offered at the cross, we become sons of God, living human beings.
Does he succeed in making his case? In many ways, he does since his goal partly means accurately reporting early Christian interpretation of John (Ignatius, Ireneaus, and so on). However, his interpretation of the Gospel of John is less persuasive. By saying this, I do not mean his entire interpretive project misses the mark (John does portray Christ as the paschal lamb who perfects humanity in the passion). Yet I find a number of his interpretations to be historically improbable.
One example is John 1. For Behr, the title “Word” basically means the Gospel story—the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In this sense, when the Word was with God (John 1:1), he was not waiting to become human (John 1:14). Actually, John 1:1, as well as John 1:14, refers to Jesus’ passion, not to an individual point of time in the biography of the Word.
I am sympathetic to Behr’s reading of the title “Word” since locating John’s sense within the various Greek and Jewish milieux has proved almost impossible. And by the time John wrote his Gospel, Paul and others had preached the Word of truth, the Word about the Gospel for decades. Thus, Word as the Gospel was a common idiom.
Still, his arguments for an alternative reading of John 1:1–3 than is usually conceived has the feel of an insightful but ultimately improbable reading. John reaches back to Genesis with his allusion to Genesis 1:1, and while John 1:3 may refer to the Word’s provident ordering of the cosmos (as Behr argues), this provident ordering still reflects Genesis 1 since the six days of creation highlight God’s ordering of the cosmos.
Further, to read John 1:14 as Christ’s body becoming flesh in the passion for us (through the lens of John 6) does have some merit. Yet it is not outside the idiom early Christianity to speak about the incarnation in terms of becoming flesh (Heb 2:14).
So while I do think Behr is on to something here, I wonder if his arguments (partly advanced by some early luminaries such as Origen and Ireneaus) may not supplant but rather supplement a traditional reading of John 1. I fully admit that John 1:3 does not use the typical word for “create” (ktizein) but a word that simply means “happens.” Yet creation is not merely about creation out of nothing—but of God’s provident ordering of the cosmos. This is the rule that the Word receives in John 1:3. The whole passion narrative in John is at great pains to show that Jesus is in absolute control even over his whole death (e.g., John 10:18; 19:4).
The title “Word” may actually refer to the word about Jesus Christ, which became a synonym for the passion of Jesus (i.e., the Gospel). Yet this probably does not exclude resonances of Greek-Jewish ideas of personified wisdom and law (cf. 1 Sirach 24). Behr would not disagree here. Where we would part ways is here: I think John 1 speaks about the Word as creator, sustainer, and incarnate—and so not directly as the man who ascends the cross to give us his life-giving flesh.
Yet where Behr adds key insight, in my opinion, is how we should conceive of the Word in John 1. We should think of the Word as no one other than Jesus of Nazareth, the man who ascended the cross. In this sense, all of history looks outward from the cross—after Jesus revealed the glory of God through his human death at the hands of lawless men.
Nevertheless, it was this Word who became flesh via the incarnation (traditionally conceived), even though we only know him as the single subject who ascended the cross. Hence, even John elsewhere can speak of the “the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world” (Rev 13:8). We should not think of the Word as anything but Jesus Christ.
Inter-disciplinary research often can provide new insight into a topic because it forces out our set of expectations. It frees from what Skinner calls “the mythology of doctrines” (Behr uses this idea often). We have come to expect texts to fulfill a certain doctrinal conclusion. Confirmation bias tells the rest of the story. So looking at a test from a different discipline can be quite freeing.
I am not sure Michel Henry’s phenomenological approach can add the kind of insight that warrants one dedicated chapter to his thought. Please note: my “I am not sure” here is serious. I did appreciate Behr’s reading of Henry and the sort of demystifying process of using phenomenology to read John.
My complaint is that Behr probably did not need to dedicate an entire chapter to Henry (actually the entire third part of the book). Others may disagree. And certainly, I benefited from Henry’s insight into the phenomenon of the flesh of Christ. Perhaps my complaint really betrays a weakness in my philosophical appreciation—in which case readers will have to decide how useful or understandable they find the field of phenomenology.
Should you buy it?
Yes. Behr is a brilliant scholar whose insight into the early church’s (including the NT’s) apocalyptic reading of Scripture may very well be worth the purchase alone. Granted, his reading of John seems less persuasive than his reading of Ireneaus or Origen, and I wonder if this is because he wants to somehow read the latter’s theology into the former.
This hunch may find confirmation in Behr’s ultimate conclusion about our theosis through the creation of the human being, Christ, and us in him (330). As an orthodox theologian, he may unintentionally perpetuate the mythology of doctrines that he so carefully tries to avoid.
In any case, rarely can one theologian or scholar ever provide a totally convincing case. But I nevertheless benefited from reading John the Theologian & His Pachal Gospel. It is brilliant and thought-provoking. Buy it now if you have any interest in John, its reception history, and new vantage points of seeing the Word of Truth, Christ our Lord.
Disclaimer: OUP provided a review copy of this book.