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The Johannine scholar you’ve never heard of.

A profile of Dr. Hall Harris

Published on:
June 10, 2020
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4 min.
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His fedora tilts so perfectly that you cannot discern if he just swept in from some adventure in the Alps or if it merely represents a style affectation. His brown leather jacket, always brown leather, fits like a custom-tailored suit. Affectation or not, you cannot miss the Harrison Ford-esque vibe as W. Hall Harris, III, Ph.D. enters the room. A triumphant John Williams score begins to play in my head almost involuntarily. If your ideal vision of a New Testament scholar combines Indiana Jones, Han Solo, and the heart of a pastor, you need only enroll in one of Harris’s offerings at Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS). For the last forty years, he has taught New Testament and Greek there, but his abiding passion is the writings of the apostle John. 

Hall Harris wants to reclaim John for the church.

I once told Greek scholar Dr. Daniel B. Wallace about my private studies of John. I built a respectable library dedicated to John and have read many of  the important scholars in the world of Johannine studies. 

Wallace asked whom I read. 

I recited names like Bultmann, Brown, Blomberg, Carson, Dodd, Köstenberger, and Anderson—the essentials list of top Johannine scholars of the past two or three generations. 

Wallace, himself a world-renowned textual critic and founder of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM.org), immediately asked if I knew Harris.

My answer: “No, I don’t know him, and frankly, I have never heard of him.” 

Wallace described Harris as “an excellent Johannine scholar,” saying “He isn’t well-known because he hasn’t published widely, but he is a genuine authority on John.” 

I considered Wallace’s estimation a professional courtesy. But studying under Harris for the past year has changed my mind. Wallace may have undersold him. Bluntly, Hall Harris is the most important Johannine scholar you have never heard of. 

The difference between Hall Harris and other Johannine scholars and the reason you have never heard of him? Hall Harris prepares pastors.

Harris freely admits that he never intended to specialize in John. In fact, his doctrinal work at The University of Sheffield in the U.K. focused on Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians. When Harris returned to DTS, his alma mater, to begin teaching forty years ago, the New Testament department lacked a Johannine expert. In fact, many seminaries at the time suffered such a gap, since serious studies of John’s corpus waned during the Historical Jesus movement. Dating issues, authorship issues, and the so-called Synoptic Problem sent Johannine literature reeling toward the abyss. The influential German theologian Rudolf Bultmann had delivered the death blow reading John as a late proto-gnostic document. 

Harris received what he calls his “direction from on high” when the seminary asked him to begin teaching courses on John’s Gospel and letters. Harris began teaching Johannine literature, first at the graduate level and eventually at the post-graduate. At the time he started teaching he “was desperately trying to stay ahead of the students.” In the following semesters, Harris found himself genuinely moved by John’s unique perspective. More importantly, Harris recognized the gravity of John’s Gospel and letters for the life of the church. Few scholars then—or even now—consider doing serious historical or critical work from John’s corpus especially if they desired to attain any serious degree of academic success. Johannine studies had languished for generations by then, and this neglect had trickled down from the academy to the church. Pastors preached from John less and less. So in the view of many, Harris’s dedication to studying and teaching John’s writings for the benefit of the pastors amounted to career suicide. 

But recent Johannine scholarship has turned the corner. Excellent works by scholars like Craig Blomberg, D.A. Carson, and Andreas Köstenberger have reestablished John as a historical source and answered many of critical scholarship’s questions. While scholars make invaluable gains, however, the trickle-down effect of this type of scholarship means that the church lags behind the academy, so John continues to receive short shrift from many pastors and in the church.

Enter Hall Harris. The reason Harris works steadily in anonymity is the most fascinating thing about the man. He sums up his own approach inadvertently in class, discussing the difference between Karl and Markus Barth: “Karl Barth was a pastor; Markus was an academician. That is the real difference between the university and the seminary. The university prepares academicians while the seminary prepares pastors.” The difference between Hall Harris and other Johannine scholars and the reason you have never heard of him? Hall Harris prepares pastors. 

Harris has published on John, but his primary focus remains fixed on influencing future pastors about the vivid portrayal of Jesus found in Johannine literature. Hall Harris wants to reclaim John for the church. Harris believes that regardless of how the debate plays out in academia, the writings of John found their way into the Christian canon because they benefit the church. In a recent interview, Dr. Harris explained why he felt that pastors need to reintroduce John’s writings both to their own study and to their churches. Harris points out that John’s Gospel, at its core, presents the living image of the Good Shepherd. And Harris believes pastors will never shepherd their flocks in the way they should without that portrayal of Christ’s example. Pastors, like anyone else, may benefit from an academic discussion on John, but they need what Harris calls the “wealth of pastoral advice in John.” 

I want you to know the truth about Harris—the truth that under his fedora and leather coat lives a heart and mind moved by John’s high view of Christ and John’s literarily expressive vision of the Christian life and church.

John shows pastors to “lead . . . also to be known.” Consequently, Harris insists that a pastor simply “can’t help his flock from a distance.” Likewise, John’s profound Christology can provide a source of renewal and refocus for pastors. Between the meetings, counseling sessions, and budgetary concerns, Pastors find in John a reminder of their mission: leading their people to a vibrant portrayal of the living Jesus. Harris stresses that without the writings of John, “the church misses a vivid interaction with Jesus.” Harris sees in John the “vital urgency of encountering Jesus” and perhaps more importantly just how John requires his readers to “make a choice about Christ.”

Describing a scholar normally consists of listing his or her accomplishments (Harris got a perfect score on his S.A.T.) or titles (Senior Professor of New Testament) or publication projects (for twenty-four years, Dr. Harris has served as project director and managing editor of The NET Bible [New English Translation], the first modern Bible translation to be published freely on the internet), but that approach leaves the reader with only some facts about Hall Harris. I want you to know the truth about Harris—the truth that under his fedora and leather coat lives a heart and mind moved by John’s high view of Christ and John’s literarily expressive vision of the Christian life and church. That vision Harris wants to see the church reclaim, and more importantly live out in full view of the wider world. To know Hall Harris, we cannot rush to Amazon or local bookstore to buy his next book. Instead, we must rush to one of the countless pulpits across the country where a Harris-trained-or-influenced pastor stands issuing the same challenge as did John the evangelist: make a choice about Jesus Christ.

J.R. Watkins
J.R. Watkins is ThM student at Dallas Theological Seminary. He, his wife Dayna, and their four children live in Tyler, Texas.

Cover image by James Coleman.

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