Archpriest John Behr discusses new work on John’s Gospel

19 April 2019 • Syosset, NY

Archpriest John Behr, the Seminary’s Georges Florovsky Distinguished Professor of Patristics, discussed his major new work on John’s Gospel at the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) Chancery Friday, April 19. The talk followed Presanctified Liturgy, presided over by Fr. John, and a meal on the Sixth Friday of Lent.

  • Listen to Archpriest John Behr’s talk (Part 1, Part 2), courtesy of the OCA Chancery
  • Follow along with the Lecture Notes, courtesy of the OCA Chancery

Father John’s book, John the Theologian & His Paschal Gospel, was published in February. In the Preface, he makes clear the book is not a commentary on John:

“It is rather an attempt to put into dialogue various readers of John, ancient and modern—Fathers, especially from the second and third centuries but also later figures, and modern scriptural scholars, theologians, and philosophers—with, ultimately, a theological goal: that of understanding what is meant by Incarnation and how it relates to the Passion, how this is conceived of as revelation and how we speak of it, that is, the relationship between scriptural exegesis and theological discourse.”

In order to bring those three strands together in dialogue—the Fathers, modern scriptural scholars, and philosophers (namely, Michel Henry, a French phenomenologist)—and produce such a high-level academic work, Fr. John spent nearly ten years working on the project.

“Each of them is done in the canons of their own discipline—it’s not just me dabbling,” Fr. John said in an interview about the new book. “I had to learn how to do scriptural scholarship, write philosophy, and so on, and then try and bring them into dialogue with each other as an act of theology.”

Work on John the Theologian was borne out of his previous works on Christian writers of the first centuries, especially Irenaeus and Origen, which Fr. John has produced over his career as a renowned patristics scholar. He traces his steps in the Preface:

Having made my way in a series of publications through to the controversies of the sixth century, I realized that to go further meant returning backwards, to reconsider Origen’s On First Principles. During the preparation of a new edition of that work, I was also asked to write a new volume on Irenaeus, taking me back even earlier. This immersion in the literature of early Christianity persuaded me that they were not reading John, and especially the Prologue to his Gospel, in the way that we often presume today. That is, they did not read the Prologue as a narrative of a ‘pre-Incarnate Word’ (a phrase I have yet to encounter in the Fathers) who subsequently becomes incarnate by being born in the world to return later on through the Passion to the Father….Persuaded that something more is going on, I began reading through modern scriptural scholarship on John, and found that, even while such a picture is often presumed, fresh avenues of reflection have opened up in recent decades…. At the same time, [a colleague] recommended that I read I Am the Truth by Michel Henry; fascinated by this work, I found myself going even further back, this time to my initial studies in continental philosophy, to retrace the path that led to Henry and his work. It is these threads that are brought together in this present volume.

Father John said there were many surprises along the way.

“I think it’s going to take me another five or six years to digest what I’ve done in that book—to actually digest it, think about it and mull it over, and produce other works coming out of that book, just as my previous works The Way to Nicea and The Nicene Faith resulted thereafter in The Mystery of Christ and Becoming Human.”

Over the coming years, Fr. John hopes his readers engage with important questions raised and addressed in John the Theologian.

“What do we mean when we say John’s is a ‘Paschal Gospel’? Why do we read the Prologue on Easter night, when on the surface it doesn’t say anything about the Passion? But, in fact, it does!”

“It is only more recently that the Prologue has come to be read as the Christmas reading, reinforcing the idea that ‘Incarnation’ can be separated from the the Eastern tradition (in which I stand), it is the Paschal reading, read at the midnight liturgy, the transition from darkness to light—a Paschal hymn and a prologue to theology.”

Physical copies of John the Theologian & His Paschal Gospel are expected to be available in North America in May through Oxford University Press. The book is already available in a Kindle edition through Amazon.