Review of ‘John’s Story’ ( a novel)

John's Story by LaHaye and Jenkins

I’ll open by saying that I did not enjoy reading this book. Perusing others’ reviews, I concluded that those who had an experience similar to mine were those who could point out flaws. So, if you nurture any hopes of deriving pleasure from reading John’s Story, don’t bother with the rest of this post.

This novel is set in AD 94-96, the last years of the apostle John’s life. The main characters—all named after historical people—are John, Polycarp (John’s disciple), Ignatius (another of John’s disciples) and Cerinthus (a heretic). The book is divided into 3 parts:

  • Part 1 is largely John dictating his gospel to Polycarp. Their dialogue serves as padding for the biblical text. (This section runs from page 3 to page 165 in the edition I read.)
  • Part 2 starts with John’s exile to Patmos and ends with his death in Ephesus. This section contains much of the text of Revelation, again padded with dialogue. (Pages 169-215)
  • Part 3 comprises the 5 NT books attributed to John printed out in their entirety in the NKJV translation. (Pages 219-310)

Doing the calculations, roughly 1/3 of the book is pure Bible. The other 2/3 is more than 60% Bible in my estimation. Conclusion: your time will be better spent reading the Bible.

Following, in no particular order, are what I consider to be some of the shortcomings of this book.

First, John seems to be clueless:

  • About  how Roman justice works. We know he’s an old man and the novel alludes to his extensive travels, yet it falls to a guard to enlighten him on his fate following his arrest. (I guess the explanation was for the reader’s benefit, but it could have  been executed better)
  • About the NT writings. The John in the novel is unaware of what Paul, Peter and even Jude had written concerning false teachers. When Cerinthus is presented, fake John (sorry, I have to distinguish him somehow) acts like nothing like this has ever happened before—or at least that’s the impression I got. I guess the authors were trying to convey the seriousness of false teaching… Additionally, fake John doesn’t behave much like the person who wrote the epistles, which have so much to say about love for God and others.
  • About what to do in general. He seemingly couldn’t do anything without Polycarp’s and Ignatius’ backing or at their suggestion. For example, Polycarp is the one who convinces him to disseminate Revelation among the churches (p186). Otherwise, John would have kept it all to himself!

Second, I wonder what the expression on my face was when I read that the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego was found in the Pentateuch (p19). How did such an egregious error make it into the print version??

Third, we never really get to know any of the characters. We learn that John suffered from ill health as a result of his age and that he worried constantly about it.  Polycarp was red-haired and Cerinthus was a persuasive talker. Ignatius? I don’t recall anything special about him. Aside from a few place names, we’re not told anything about the culture, customs, architecture, etc. of any of the locations in the book—which is one of the appeals of reading historical fiction.

Fourth, was Cerinthus in the novel a gnostic or a works-religionist? Gnostics were big on secret knowledge and despised the material world, among other things. Earning/assuring your salvation through doing good works, as stated more than once in the novel, wasn’t one of their ‘things’. Some who read the book may come away thinking that they can identify a Gnostic…  (I’ve written a little about Gnosticism, using resources mentioned in this post.)

Fifth, all the believers in Ephesus met in one location. Everyday. In a chapel.

(5.a) It had been at least a generation since Paul spent 2 years there. Surely there had been some numeric growth in all that time?

(5.b) Ancient sources attest that Christians met weekly: (i)Pliny the younger, a Roman official whose job description included torturing Christians, wrote:

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. […] Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses.

(ii) Justin Martyr, a Christian, in his First Apology wrote:

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.

One reason for not meeting daily was that many believers were slaves who didn’t have free time.

(5.c) I’m not too sure, but I think that there weren’t purpose-built structures for worship in the first century.

Sixth, at the beginning of the book John’s imprisoned in the Colosseum in a cell from which he can see gladiators practising. (a) The Romans had proper prisons nearby (b) Even the movie Gladiator got it right: practice was held in the ludus magnus, next door to the Colosseum.

Seventh, when John is dictating to Polycarp, the latter says things like, “I’ve never heard that before.” Others in the book express surprise at, or mock him for, his memory. I recently skimmed through Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Bauckham states that not only were eyewitnesses well-known in their communities, but that they also often retold their story. They hardly kept silent. It is therefore unlikely that John would spend 60 years not saying some things only to spill them out a year before his death. As to memory, the scholar in the video I embedded in this post explains it quite well.

In conclusion, I’m left wondering how much research Messrs. LaHaye and Jenkins undertook. If the omissions and misinformation contained in the book were deliberate choices, an authors’ note to the effect that they were taking liberties would have sufficed to silence me and my nit-picking ilk. John’s Story had great potential, and I’m disappointed that it wasn’t realised.