Book Review: James’ Gospel of John

One of my more interesting virtual friends whom I have never met is James David Audlin. He was referred to me by a mutual friend who saw us both as strongly interested in philosophy, writing, personal spirituality, music, intercultural relationships, theology and comparative religion. It also turns out that he is a “dog person” and a long-term expat from the US who is rather frustrated with our home country’s human rights record at home and abroad. So yes, he and I have hit it off fairly well.

James is a former clergyman of a liberal Protestant persuasion who, after a bit of globe trotting, has settled in Panama these days. He apparently makes just enough off of book royalties from the various novels and poetry and essay collections that he has written over the years to provide for a simple life among the poor there, using the Internet pretty much daily to stay in touch with the “developed world”. As a divorced grandfather he has found a widowed local grandmother there to share his life with, and they officially married during the past year. James’ new wife is a Jehovah’s Witness, but according to him that group is far more mellow and dialog-oriented in that part of the world than their stereotype in the US and Europe. So in spite of cultural differences and technical challenges they seem (from this distance) to be quite happy together.

This year James has been working on finalizing a long-term project of his: an extensive re-formulation of the Gospel of John. Now to explain my perspective on this project, because there are so many Jameses in the gospel itself, I will have to switch over to referring to my friend James by his surname: Audlin.

The "mockup" for James' book's cover

The “mockup” for James’ book’s cover

Audlin is comfortable in his Greek and basic Aramaic skills, and back in his seminary days the bug of historical redaction critique got under his skin, so this project goes way back for him. As he figures it, the text of the fourth Gospel has at least 3 or 4 layers to it, and if it could be “restored” in the same way as the Sistine Chapel –– stripping away the extra layers and touching up the older layers underneath –– it might provide an even more beautiful and striking portrait of Jesus. The risk, however, is that he might end up “restoring” this portrait more along the lines of what was famously done this year to the portrait of Christ in Borja, Spain this year.

frescopicThis well-meaning labor of love on Audlin’s part stretches to some 600 pages in total, 120 of which are the “reconstructed gospel” itself, with 60 pages each for the Greek text and the English translation thereof, on pages facing each other. This is preceded by an 80 page summary of what was driving him and what sort of methods he is attempting to follow, and then there are over 350 pages worth of commentary and theoretical justifications for his conclusions in rearranging the text as he has. It takes a fairly serious commitment to such matters to read such a tome; one can only imagine what sort of effort it took to write it!

The starting premise here is rather uncontroversial in one sense: If you take the Gospels to be human creations based on some form of contact with the divine then the human mistakes they may contain, and the puzzles of how they came about in their current form, cease to be a threat to our faith and they turn into a fascinating puzzles. The different names given to key characters, the strikingly different chronology and the inclusion of entirely different episodes than the other three gospels make the Gospel of John a particularly fascinating puzzle. It almost seems as though someone dropped all of the pages in the manuscript on the way into the publisher’s office, leading to its page order getting scrambled, with a few of them lost. What if we could get things back in the “proper order”? It also seems as though someone in the second century may have done a re-edit of the text to put it into its current form. (Audlin suggests Polycarp of Smyrna as the most likely suspect.) What if he tried to take out some politically offensive elements and add in some more “orthodox” elements in the process? Would there be some way of undoing this process? Like the little boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes, Audlin has a sense of having nothing to lose, so he’s decided to give it a try.

Actually this reminds me of two different personal perspectives I have regarding research challenges. To start with redaction critique has always reminded me of the passage in book 3 of Gulliver’s Travels where the hero is among normal sized people for a change, who are so lost in their own theoretical world that they’ve lost all contact with practical realities. In particular it brings to mind the classroom in which a blind professor is trying to instruct a group of blind students as to how to tell the difference between colors of paint based on texture, consistency, smell and taste; but unfortunately their investigations into such sciences were in a rather “imperfect state” at the time when Gulliver had his chance to observe. So it seems when it comes to those who attempt to make a living at this sort of textual analysis.

Over the years I’ve done a fair amount of text editing myself, and it would be fair to say that I’ve developed my own relatively distinctive way with words in the process. But no matter how well someone might know my style and pour over texts that have my linguistic fingerprints in them, I have never met anyone that would presume to even hazard a guess as to which paragraphs and which sentences there were my own contributions and which parts were entirely from the authors’ original text. If they did I could readily confirm the “imperfect state” of their speculations, and this would likely prove too frustrating for them to continue with the method. But when it comes to Bible scholarship based on the early 20th century German tradition, they’re willing to give it a go pretty much continuously. Audlin is merely stretching the boundaries of this bizarre field of academic endeavor here.

So how might an ambitious newcomer to the game of redaction critique set about determining –– in terms of the above analogy –– which colors are which? He would have to employ some general theory of what the original author was trying to say and how he was prone to saying it, and how the style and message of the later editor would have significantly differed from this. This in turn involves identifying the main characters in the story, and reaching some conclusions about their relationships to each other, and the author’s relationship to each of them.

In the Gospel of John this provides a rather fascinating challenge. Is Nathaniel the same character that the other gospels call Bartholomew? Is Alphaeus the same fellow as Clopas/Cleopas? Is the sister of Mary, mother of Jesus seen at the crucifixion in John the same lady as the mother of the sons of Zebedee seen at the crucifixion in Matthew? And how are we to sort through all of the Johns, Jameses, Judases, Simons, Josephs and especially Marys that crop up in the tale?

To cut to the chase here, Audlin has concluded that the “Da Vinci Code” theory is correct: Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, and furthermore this Mary is actually the same person as Mary of Bethany, who is also the same person as the woman at the well in Samaria in John 4, and the same person as the prostitute who came to pay homage to Jesus by perfuming his feet in the house of Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7. To take this counter-intuitive leap to even greater heights, Audlin further theorizes that Mary was a single mother when she met Jesus, that she had worked as a temple priestess/prostitute previously (which her “five previous husbands” would have been a cultural reference to), that Lazarus would have been her son rather than her brother, that by her Jesus would have fathered John Mark, who went on to be the author of the second gospel, and that the “beloved disciple” on whose recollections the Gospel of John is based is none other than Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead.

Anointing of Jesus' FeetTo briefly summarize how he reaches all of these conclusions is a bit beyond my skills as a writer, but in many ways it relates to the second research challenge that this work brings to mind: About 7 or 8 years ago my son got me interested in tracing back our family’s roots in the Netherlands, and as it turned out, with recently published records on line, I was able to get much further in tracing my male lineage than anyone of my father’s generation ever had. But in these newly digitalized records from the 19th century there were plenty of confusions with first, second and third cousins sharing the same first names, and with family names changing as my pauper ancestors’ families acquired new farms that had family names attached to them. Also it seems that many of my ancestors from the 18th century were semi-literate at best, and the official records of their marriages, children’s baptisms, funerals and inheritance bequests often varied between 4 or 5 alternative spellings for both their given names and their surnames. Top that off with the fact that official surnames for Dutch peasants were effectively non-existent prior to the Napoleonic era and you start to see what sort of puzzle I became engrossed in for that time.

I know, for instance, that my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather’s name was Jan Hendrik, that his son was Arend (or Arent, depending on where you look), and that his son was again Jan Hendrik, and that his son in turn was Arend Jan. I know that within these clans there was something of a moral duty to keep other men’s names in circulation as well, including Fredrick, Gerrit, Albert, Willem, Derk and Lucas. What I still haven’t figured out though is who the original Hendrik in the lineage was, how closely the other Huisjens of the Ommen area were related to my family before they died out, whether my great-great-great-great-grandfather’s brother, who changed his name when he married into money, has any living male heir who would share my paternal bloodline still, and whether or not there were any associations between my ancestors and their village’s tiny Jewish community.  Even if I were completely fluent in Dutch and intimately acquainted with the geography, parish histories, economic history and local legends of the Overijssel, I still wouldn’t be able to do much more than speculate about many of these questions. The various speculations that Audlin tosses about in the process of his investigations into the Gospel of John strongly remind me of some of my earlier speculations in this personal genealogical project. The level of uncertainty in Audlin’s project appears to be much greater though.

Anyway, another major German speculation from the pre-Nazi period that Audlin has bought into is that Jesus as the God-man was something that Saul of Tarsus basically invented when he reinvented himself as the Apostle Paul, Jesus’ ambassador to the non-Jews; and that underneath this motif you can find a tale that is more authentically Jewish and historical.  Whereas the other gospels were written under Paul’s influence from the start, as this story goes, John started out with eyewitness accounts that originally weren’t so corrupted by Paul’s viewpoint. Jesus was just a fantastic moral teacher, a legendary local miracle worker and a friend of the poor –– a campaigner for “truth, justice and the Davidic way,” but without so many other Superman-like characteristics.

Alright, that theory inevitably means that there are certain things about the presumed divinity of Jesus that Audlin’s going to leave out on purpose because he’ll assume that they are later innovations on the text and he’s shooting for the “original”.  How does it end up working? In some ways not so bad as conservatives might expect.

Reading the actual gospel text in Audlin’s rearranged version is actually a rewarding aesthetic –– perhaps even spiritual –– experience unto itself. Though, for reasons given above, I’m not able to take it as the new benchmark in Johannine scholarship as Audlin might hope, taken more as a creative work of literature based on ancient texts –– read with the same sort of open-minded appreciation one would bring to a new musical based on the life of Jesus, for instance –– the text does have a punchy dramatic flow to it in this new form.

It is divided up into four acts, each with their own coherent themes and story lines within the overall plot. Much of it actually makes a lot of sense: for instance taking the final section of chapter 14 in the received text, ending with the words, “Come now, let us leave,” and putting it at the end of the whole Last Supper monolog rather than in the middle, makes complete dramatic sense. Many other sermons and debate sequences in the text receive a certain added impact through Audlin’s dramatic touch in rearranging the order of the text.

Where things run thin in terms of keeping the drama moving in a steady fashion –– where Audlin believes that the redactor has chopped out important parts that would have been necessary to the poetic flow of the original –– he patches in some bits and pieces from the Gospel of Mark and from some rather obscure papyruses. This provides one extra miracle to go together with the teachings of Jesus –– getting grain to instantly grow and ripen before his followers’ eyes by scooping out handfuls of Jordan River water and tossing it on the shore –– but other than that there are no significant surprises here. Overall one gets the impression that if Audlin doesn’t already have a musical score ready to play in the background as this text is being performed it wouldn’t take him long to write one.

Audlin is also kind enough to emphasize the way in which this gospel has Jesus repeatedly saying I AM in ways that imply a unique connection with God in terms of God’s self-description to Moses from the burning bush (Exodus 3:14. He points out quite correctly that within the text the narrator never refers to himself in the first person, adding to the mystery of his identity, but also leaving the expression “I am” to be used almost exclusively by Jesus. The only other character who utters this “I am” is the man born blind that Jesus heals: All of the townspeople see him afterwards and say to themselves, “No, that can’t be the same blind dude that always sits by the gate begging,” to which the formerly blind fellow says quite emphatically, “No, I AM the same guy!” But this is only possible for him in the narrative because of being so directly and powerfully touched by Jesus’ “I AM”. And the “blasphemous” implications of Jesus claims before the Pharisees that, “before Abraham was, I AM” (8:58) couldn’t really come out more come out more clearly than they do in Audlin’s version of the text.

In fact in spite of his efforts to dispose of Pauline “God-man veneers” in this gospel reconstruction, the resulting portrait of Jesus is one that ever more strongly brings to mind the famous claim of C.S Lewis that Jesus does not leave us with the option of thinking of him as just a good man: he must either be a stark raving madman: a psychotic megalomaniac on the level of someone who thinks of himself as a fried egg; or he must be the most cynical psychopathic con man that the universe has ever known; or he must be who he says he is: the unique, divine “anointed one” of God, sent to provide salvation to all who believe in him. Sounds pretty God-man-like to me!

So while I don’t agree with many of his starting assumptions or final conclusions, I greatly appreciate Audlin’s invitation to dive in and play with these ideas found there. Speculating about Jesus’ family relations, for instance, is almost as much fun as speculating about my own ancestry. For instance less radical than Audlin’s speculations would be the idea that Jesus grew up staying in touch with two sets of cousins: one set by way of Joseph’s brother’s family down in Judea, and another by way of Mary’s sister’s family in Galilee. These cousins could have accounted for as much as half of his original band of twelve disciples, and their immediate contacts could have accounted for the other half. Wouldn’t that be interesting! Such speculations aren’t particularly important theologically, but they’re interesting in their own way, and many of them I’d never stopped to think about before looking at Audlin’s version of the text.

But for some that is not as interesting by half as the possibility of shattering long-standing traditional ideas, such as Jesus being celibate, or Mary being a perpetual virgin, or even the well-established legend of John, son of Zebedee being the primary witness for the text of the Gospel of John. Trying to stake out his own radical ground in appealing to those interests is a big part of what Audlin seems to be doing here. That may or may not be the best way to start a conversation on the matter: many who could most benefit from reconsidering their presuppositions on such matters will be too offended –– or too tingly at the idea of having some new “scholarly critique” to toss at their traditionalist Christian opponents –– to actually stop and consider such matters. All in all then I’d be rather (though pleasantly) surprised if this work reaches a particularly wide audience.

So if you are the sort of person who likes intellectual literary analysis puzzles and theological speculations for their own sake, if you are not particularly thin-skinned about your presuppositions concerning the text of the New Testament and if you are facing a serious shortage of reading material for 2013 otherwise, I can heartily recommend Audlin’s new project as something to occupy yourself with. I don’t see it as earth-shatteringly important piece of scholarship in the sense that I don’t expect it will start any new major international debate among historical Jesus scholars, and I rather doubt that the target audience for such a work is as broad as my friend James might expect or hope, but for what it is and for those few who fit into the sort of reader profile I’ve outlined here, this is a fascinating reading project in its own sense. If you play around with analyzing Audlin himself as part of joining him in analyzing this gospel that would be fair game, and that makes the reading experience all the more interesting.

And whether or not you fit into this sort of profile, I wish my readers here one and all a very Happy New Year!

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Filed under Epistemology, History, Linguistics, Religion

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