People want to know who Jesus was, what he was like. The recently aired “The Bible” miniseries did to Jesus what most film versions do – they mashed it up, mixing elements from each of the Gospels without much concern for the original context. You almost have to do this to satisfy the viewing audience, which wants their favorite elements to be in the story. But, there is no “life of Christ in stereo,” to borrow a title from way back. What we have are four Gospels, each of which tells the story of Jesus differently. Three of the Gospels do have much in common, but even then differ in emphasis and expression. As for the fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John, it tells the story in very different fashion.
Most scholarly attempts to reconstruct the story of the historical Jesus – a difficult task to undertake – presume the priority of the Synoptic Gospels. Presuming that Mark was written first, with Matthew and Luke working off Mark, but using a secondary sayings gospel (Q) as foundation for that expansion, the historical reconstruction begins. The Gospel of John, written near the end of the first century, is presumed to be a theological document, but lacking any real historical merit. That is the way I learned it. It’s the way I’ve taught it to others. If you want history, don’t look to John. That the Jesus Seminar folks found little in John that merited their votes – the Gospel of Thomas (not a canonical text) did better than John -- should not surprise us. Besides, John’s Christology is a bit too high for many (though a plus for many conservative Christians).
With the current state of scholarship the way it is, it would seem illogical for a Progressive/liberal biblical interpreter to champion the cause of John’s Gospel being the closest to the original story. That is, however, the cause taken up by Lee Harmon in his book John’s Gospel: The Way It Happened. Harmon would have us believe that the Gospel of John is, for the most part, a first hand, eye-witness account – the only one. Although the Gospels are written anonymously, with authorship attributed to them only in the second century, he points out passages that seem to suggest direct knowledge of time and place that only an eye witness might know. His assumption is that now aged John, nearing death offers his own Gospel to set things straight.
This book is a sequel to an earlier book Revelation - The Way it Happened, that follows the same pattern as found in this book. Harmon’s book is part commentary, part sermon, and part novel. We are provided the text of John, but it is presented as if John is dictating the words to his secretary. The fictional part is the story of the production of the gospel. In this rendering of the story, which invites us to use our imaginations, John is in Ephesus. He is near death, but surrounded by a community that hails him prophet and leader. He had written an earlier apocalyptic letter (the Book of Revelation) during his imprisonment on Patmos (around 78 CE). Harmon suggests that John had led his community into the battle for Jerusalem in 70 CE, presuming that this was the great battle for the kingdom of God, but this had ended in failure. He tried to recast it apocalyptically in Revelation, but now, fifteen or so years later, he regrets writing that letter. He had given up his earlier apocalyptic theology (which he shared with Paul) for a realized eschatology that one finds present in this Gospel. For John the resurrection has occurred, with the kingdom prese0nt in the here and now.
The person writing down his words is a Gentile woman named Ruth. Joining in the conversation as the Gospel is dictated is Matthew. At first it’s not clear who Matthew is, but soon it becomes clear that this is the author of the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew is portrayed as a disillusioned second generation follower of Jesus, who had written his own more apocalyptic gospel, using the Gospel of Mark as its foundation. Matthew sees Jesus as the promised Messiah of Israel, but is now disappointed by the events that had followed the fall of Jerusalem. He’s not at all happy with the influx of Gentile believers – like Ruth – but continues to hold out hope that Jesus will return as Messiah to rescue Israel from Rome’s hegemony. The debate between John and Matthew helps develop Harmon’s premise that there are two Gospel traditions – John’s and Peter’s, with John’s being the most authentic. With John we discover how things really happened.
Harmon accepts the premise that John offers us a spiritual gospel, but he still believes it is a more authentic version than the Synoptic construction. His thesis is different enough from standard scholarly portrayals that many will find it difficult to accept, but his presentation is at the very least imaginative. Whether one accepts or not, he makes a compelling case. Not only that, but he helps bring the text to life. He is clearly a gifted story teller, and we’re the beneficiary of those gifts here.
I must admit that while I’ve rarely looked to John for the historical side of the Jesus story, and may not yet be ready to make the jump, this is a thoroughly enjoyable read. Since John is often seen as overly spiritual, and thus not a worthy guide to the historical Jesus, this gospel is often put off to the side. There’s a reason why John doesn’t have his own lectionary cycle, but instead fills in gaps. We don’t think he preserves any history worth considering. But what if he has got the story right and not the Synoptics? Heaven help us!!
Whether he’s correct or not, this is a book worth reading! And if you read it, you’ll never look at John the same way again.