Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Starting John's Gospel: The Way It Happened

I started Lee Harmon's John's Gospel: The Way It Happened.  I'd like to thank Lee for sending me my Advanced Reader Copy.

This book is a sequel to another book that Lee wrote, Revelation: The Way It Happened.  I have not read all of that particular book, but I read parts of it on Google Books (see here), and I found the prose to be quite gripping.

Lee includes a summary of his Revelation book in John's Gospel: The Way It Happened.  Essentially, what I got out of that summary was that Christians during the first century were expecting for the end to come very soon, but that did not happen, and life just kept on going on.  In John's Gospel, the characters are trying to cope with that disappointment as well as other problems that Christians were experiencing, such as economic marginalization by pagans in Asia Minor and marginalization within synagogues.

The book alternates between fiction and non-fiction, even as the fictional parts manifest the author's awareness of issues within biblical studies.  In my latest reading, the prophet John is dictating his Gospel to a lady named Ruth, while Matthew expresses his sarcasm.  Matthew was a character in Lee's Revelation book, and he is the author of the Gospel of Matthew (but my impression is that Lee does not equate him with Matthew the tax-collector and disciple of Jesus).  Matthew is bitter because the end did not come, and he and his father gave up so much because they expected for Jesus to return soon.  Moreover, in my latest reading, Matthew, John, and Ruth debate about who exactly Jesus is.  Matthew believes that Jesus originated at the virgin birth, whereas John is proposing the radical idea that Jesus pre-existed and actually is God.  The Epistle to the Colossians comes into their discussion, since Colossians portrays Jesus as pre-existent wisdom, and Matthew expresses skepticism that Paul wrote that epistle.

Lee returns to this story, while he also has non-fictional sections that go into the historical background behind the Gospel of John.  For example, Lee has a section on the Greco-Roman conceptions of the logos, which are important to know in interpreting John 1.

Lee draws from biblical scholarship in this book.  Unlike Lee, I wouldn't call John Shelby Spong "one of our foremost Jesus scholars" (page 10), as quotable and insightful as Bishop Spong may be.  But Lee does demonstrate a grasp of scholarly debates in a footnote on the curse of the heretics in synagogues.  Although Lee views the curse to be present in the late first century and part of the controversy between Jews and Christians, he's aware of the scholarly arguments that it has a later date and was directed towards heretics in general, not Christians, specifically.  I tend to agree with Lee that, since there was controversy between Christians and mainstream Judaism in the late first century, as we see in the Gospel of John, there is a strong possibility that the curse of the heretics was directed against Christians.

I found something that Lee says on page 26 to be particularly interesting: "[The Gospel of John's] incarnation theme reminds us of Caesar Augustus, who, as the incarnation of the god Mercury, 'became visible' and whose birthday became 'for the whole world the beginning of the gospel.'  [(In a footnote, Lee refers to a resolution from the Provincial Assembly of Asia Minor that made these claims about Caesar Augustus.)]  Its descent and ascent theme brings to mind how the incarnated Mercury descended as the son of a god for the atonement of humans before ascending back to heaven.  While rich in Jewish symbolism, John's Gospel nevertheless makes the Christ story available to any reader living in Asia Minor or educated in Hellenistic tradition."

This passage in Lee's book made me think about scholarly arguments about divine kings in Greco-Roman conceptualization (see here, here, and here).  There is nuance in terms of this issue, but I did a search, and apparently Horace had a poem about how Augustus was an incarnation of Mercury (see here).  While I have questions about the extent to which Greco-Roman conceptions of divine rulers overlapped with the Christian doctrine of the incarnation, Lee mentions things that are certainly relevant to this issue.

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