Since John’s christology has been under discussion recently (see “Why did the Jews accuse Jesus of making himself equal to God?” and “Before Abraham was, I am”), and since I will be preaching on the Word which became flesh as the first in an Advent series this Sunday, I’ve scraped together some thoughts on the opening paragraph of John’s Gospel.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God (pros ton theon), and the Word was God (theos ēn ho logos). This was in the beginning with God (pros ton theon). All things came to be (egeneto) through it, and without it not one thing came to be (egeneto). What has come to be in it was life, and the life was the light of people, and the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (Jn. 1:1-5, my translation)
I suggest that the place to start is actually the emphatic assertion in verse 3 that all things, without exception, “came about” through the Word, which was with God and was God/god/divine in the beginning.
1. The statement in verse 3 about all things coming to be (egeneto) through the word echoes the repeated use of the aorist of ginomai (21 times) in Genesis 1:1-2:4 LXX to speak of the coming into being of the parts of creation. For example:
And it came to be (egeneto) evening, and it came to be (egeneto) morning, day one. (Gen. 1:5)
And God said, “Let the waters bring forth creeping things among living creatures and birds flying on the earth against the firmament of the sky.” And it became so (egeneto houtōs). (Gen. 1:20)
In the end, God sees “all things” (ta panta) which he made, and “it came to be (egeneto) evening, and it came to be (egeneto) morning, a sixth day” (Gen. 1:31).
This does not necessarily mean, however, that John 1:1-3 is a statement about the original creation of the world. John may have taken up the language of the first “beginning” in order to speak of a new “beginning” in the things that happened in the life of Jesus. As we have it, the outcome of the Word’s activity was not that the material world existed but that people received life; and this life was the light which the darkness seen in the Gospel story was not able to overcome. On this reading, John 1:1-5 is a preliminary synopsis of the Gospel story. Either way, the difference is not great.
2. If the Word is further personified in John 1:1-2, the conceptuality may have been influenced by the description of the participation of Wisdom in the work of creation that we find in Proverbs: “When he prepared the sky, I was present with him… when he made strong the foundations of the earth, I was beside him” (Prov. 8:27, 29-30). The Word was with God in the beginning in the way that Wisdom was with God.
3. These opening verses are not a statement about Jesus. They are a statement about the creative function of the Word spoken by God. Leon Morris, of all people, writes:
It is probably impossible for us to read the Prologue without thoughts of Jesus of Nazareth, but it is worth bearing in mind that there is nothing to link the two until we come to verse 14. Until that point the first readers of this Gospel would have thought of the Word in terms of a supremely great Being or Principle. If we are to evaluate the intended impact of these words we must bear this in mind.1
4. Given the preceding points, the clause “the Word was God/god/divine” cannot be read as an assertion of the divinity of the human Jesus or as a reference to the eternal Son. It is a statement only about the (personified?) creative function of the Word spoken by God. It is only once we get to verse 14 that we have to ask what it meant for this Word to become flesh.
I think that Morris rather contradicts himself here: “John is not merely saying that there is something divine about Jesus. He is affirming that he is God, and doing so emphatically as we see from the word order in the Greek.”2 John does not affirm that Jesus was God. He affirms that the Word became flesh.
5. Haenchen draws attention to a very interesting passage in Philo:3
What then should we say? There is one true God, but the many are called (gods) by an excessive use. Therefore, the sacred word on the present occasion makes known the true (God) by the article, saying: “I am the God (ho theos), but the excessive use without an article, asserting: “the one seen by you in place” not of the God (tou theou), but only “of a god” (theou). And he calls “god” (theon, without the article) his most ancient word here, not being superstitious regarding the placing of the words, but setting forth one purpose, to speak the facts. (Philo, Dreams 1:229–230, my translation)
The reference is to this verse:
I am the God who appeared to you at a divine place (en topōi theou), there where you anointed a stele to me and made a vow to me there. (Gen. 31:13 LXX)
Philo appears to have taken en topōi theou as meaning not “in this divine place” but “in place of a god”; and he identifies this “god” with his Word (logos).
So according to Philo it is possible to speak of the Word of God as theos without the article in such as way as to distinguish it from God himself (ho theos).
6. According to Michaels, ‘the absence of the article alerts the reader that “the Word” and “God,” despite their close and intimate relationship, are not interchangeable. While the Word is God, God is more than just the Word.’4 . Origen says that John “uses the article, when the name of God refers to the uncreated cause of all things, and omits it when the Logos is named God” (Comm. on John 2.2).
The significance of this, I think, is that it is not God as the “uncreated cause of all things” who became flesh but the Word (or Wisdom) of God as creative function. For the sake of simplicity the church fathers collapsed these careful distinctions into the doctrine of the “incarnate deity”. I have no problem with that, but the specific narrative point has been sacrificed in the interests of metaphysical coherence.
The Word that was spoken in the primal creation, through which all parts of the cosmos came into being (egeneto), “became flesh” (sarx egeneto) and dwelt among the Jews, after the manner of divine Wisdom (cf. Sir. 24:8-12; 1 En. 42:1-2).
The things that “have happened” (gegonen) in the Gospel story, which John is about to relate, as a consequence of the diligent obedience of the Son, are therefore to be understood as constituting a new period of divine creation activity, the beginning of a new world. The creative intention of God assumed flesh in the person of Jesus in order to bring about a new creation that would mean the life of the age to come for those who believed.