(how to tell the biblical story
in a way that makes a difference)

The Word became flesh: John and the historical Jesus

Not least at this time of year we bring a lot of conventional expectations to the reading of the prologue to John’s Gospel. We hear a familiar story of God sending his pre-existent Son into the world so that people might believe in him and become “children of God”. In order to sustain that reading we filter out rather a lot that’s in the text, in addition to all the tacit literary knowledge that is excluded simply because we are complacent modern readers.

Part of what I want to try to do here, therefore, is to let some of the textual and contextual detail back in to see if the passage reads any differently. But I have to say that I am also motivated by a concern not to let John’s idiosyncratic Gospel stand as a stumbling-block to the task of reading the New Testament historically. This is not about debunking the Christmas stories; it is part of a search for an evangelical reading of the New Testament that takes its historical contingency seriously.

“In the beginning…” obviously takes us back to Genesis 1. This primary account of creation has been overlaid with a story about the intimate and lively involvement of “wisdom” in the process. We find it in Proverbs 8:22-31:

The Lord created me as the beginning of his ways, for the sake of his works. Before the present age he founded me, in the beginning…. I was beside him, fitting together; it is I who was the one in whom he took delight. And each day I was glad in his presence at every moment, when he rejoiced after he had completed the world and rejoiced among the sons of men. (Prov. 8:22-23, 30-31 NETS)

But then a further transformation has been made by replacing “wisdom” with logos, which presumably stands as an essentially Greek (Stoic) principle of rationality. We find a similar fusion of the biblical and the philosophical in Philo’s comments on Genesis 2:4 (Alleg. 1:19), where he speaks of the “perfect reason” (teleios logos) which was the “beginning of creation” (archē geneseōs).

So the shape of the Jewish narrative has been preserved, but a critical element from Hellenistic thought has been introduced. The question then is whether the reader is supposed to notice this intrusion—that is, whether these opening verses are in fact a statement not about “Jesus” but something which the Greeks understood, namely the logos. If this is the case, arguably the masculine pronouns in John 1:1-5 should be translated “it” rather than “he” or “him”. At least, it is interesting to hear how the passage sounds if we do not bring to it a predetermined identification of the logos with Jesus:

In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God. It was in the beginning with God; all things came about through it, and apart from it nothing came about that came about. In it was life, and the life was the light of people; and the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (1:1-5, my translation)

What these verses would assert then, in effect, is not that Jesus was (or was with) God, though that conclusion still might be reached by an extended detour, but that the creative force known to the Greeks as logos was in fact the creator God of Israel—an identification aided by the mediating story of wisdom’s participation in the act of creation. The argument would be similar to Paul’s naming of the “unknown god” in Acts 17:23-24: “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth….”

This creative force is the source of life and light for all humanity. It is a good light that has not yet been overcome by the darkness. This common story about humanity, however, anticipates in its language the particular story about light and darkness in Israel. This localized story begins with John the Baptist, who bears witness concerning the light. The historical figure anchors us in Israel’s story: the “true light”, which enlightens every person, was in the world but unknown to the world because he came first “to his own people”. The Jews as a people rejected him, but to those who believed in his name he gave the right to become “children of God”.

The conflict between darkness and light is developed later in the Gospel with particular reference to Jesus and the experience of the disciples: the “light has come into the world” as a sign of judgment on those who love the darkness (3:19); Jesus has “come into the world as the light”, and those who follow him “will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (8:12; 12:46); and the light is with the disciples only “a little while longer” (12:35). Here the argument is contextualized; it is constrained temporally, embedded in the story of the struggle of the disciples to sustain an authentic witness in the face of Jewish and pagan hostility.

The particular story of the coming of the light to Israel is then re-stated in different terms. Notice that the Kai at the beginning of verse 14 is translated as an explicative “Indeed” rather than as a connective “And”, so that what follows is heard as another way of saying that the light “came to his own people”.

Indeed, the word became flesh and dwelt (eskēnōsen) among us, and we saw his glory, glory as of an only son from a father, full of grace and truth…. For from his fulness we have all received, grace upon grace. (1:14, 16, my translation)

The becoming flesh, therefore, of the creative force which the Greeks called logos and which the Jews imagined personified as the “wisdom” of God is presented not directly as a universal event but as a coming to Israel—or as a coming into the world by way of Israel’s story.

We have an important precedent for this in the first person account of wisdom encamping in Israel found in Sirach 24, which reads as a rather close gloss on Proverbs 8:22-31). Wisdom comes from the mouth of God, covers the earth like a mist, and seeks an inheritance among every people and nation (24:3-7). But the creator settles wisdom in Israel:

Then the creator of all commanded me, and he who created me put down my tent and said, ‘Encamp (kataskēnōson) in Jacob, and in Israel let your inheritance be.’ Before the age, from the beginning, he created me, and until the age I will never fail. In a holy tent I ministered before him, and thus in Sion I was firmly set. In a beloved city as well he put me down, and in Jerusalem was my authority. And I took root among a glorified people, in the portion of the Lord is my inheritance. (Sir. 24:6-12 NETS)

So the cosmic principle of reason or wisdom through which a good creation came into existence—as John pursues the thought here—encamps in the midst of Israel, at a critical juncture in the people’s story, when the Jewish Law gives way to “grace and truth”. Whatever else we may make of this, John is surely at least saying that the transformation of the people of God that will take place through the disciples’ struggle against darkness is a new creation.

The prologue to the Gospel concludes with a remarkable statement that also seems to me to be a highly compressed summary of the preceding argument about the logos taking on an extraordinary new embodiment in the story of Israel:

No one has seen God; the only [Son], the one being in the bosom of the father, he has explained (exēgēsato) him. (1:17-18, my translation)

There are text-critical problems here, though “only Son” surely makes much better sense than “only God”, even if the latter is marginally better attested. But we still have the assertion that the Son “interprets” or “expounds” the Father. There is a risk of reading too much into this word, but this is not the usual language of revelation. It seems to evoke the idea of the interpretation of a discourse—either of the Law, which was the wisdom of God, or of the rational discourse of the Greeks.

I’m not sure quite where this reading of the Prologue leads us. It suggests to me that John has established a bridge with certain strands of Greek thought by which the particular Jewish story of Jesus and the salvation of God’s people would find relevance in the wider world. The hermeneutical importance of this should be obvious. If we allow study of the Synoptic Gospels to stress the historical particularity of the story of Jesus and its lack of direct relevance, we have to find other indirect ways to connect with it. John’s argument about the logos becoming flesh puts forward the story of Israel’s renewal as the historical ground for recovering the goodness and authenticity of created existence beyond the particular narrative.

That transposition or transferral needs careful unpacking, but it points to the profound possibility of inserting John as an interpretive bridge between the historical Jesus and the modern world’s anxieties regarding its material or global existence. See these two posts for further thoughts along these lines: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”; and “The community of the Beatitudes and the restoration of creation”.


Andrew, excellent the way you tease this out and place it in context.

I must admit, though, when I read commentaries about this passage, I have to scratch my head. It’s been long since I believed in the simple, “In the beginning was Jesus and Jesus was with God…” formula.

But what was the author getting at? Was he a brilliant expositor who was able to capture the nuance of a complex topic within a few words (and had several layers of meaning that would be understood by the informed)? Or is there a scramingly simple interpretation that has been lost forever because we don’t know the context and audience?

Thanks, Andrew!