p.ost

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

In the beginning was the Word, etc.

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.

For the sake of simplicity the church fathers collapsed these careful narrative distinctions into the doctrine of the “incarnate deity”. I have no problem with that, but…

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.

Conclusion

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.

  • 1. L. Morris, The Gospel of John (1995), 67.
  • 2. L. Morris, The Gospel of John (1995), 68-69.
  • 3. E. Haenchen, John 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of John, Chapters 1–6 (1984), 109.
  • 4. J. Ramsey Michaels, John (2010), 48.

Comments

Can “Word became flesh” simply mean God’s word created a second Adam, just as God spoke to create the first Adam?

If word becoming flesh meant Incarnation, aren’t there clearer ways to say something the effect that the Word assumed or took on flesh?

How would “the word became flesh” mean “the word created a second Adam”? There’s no reference to sarx (“flesh”) in the creation accounts until we get to the creation of Eve from the flesh of Adam (Gen. 2:21-24 LXX). Also the ‘God said, “Let there be…”’ formula is abandoned when we get to the creation of humanity: “Let us make… And God made…” (Gen. 1:26-27).

Perhaps John meant his readers to think of Jesus as a second Adam, but it seems more likely that “the word became flesh” is determined by the background story about wisdom looking for a place to dwell in the world. Because John believed that the creative word/wisdom of God pitched its tent in Jesus (rather than in the temple or in Torah or in the nation as a whole), he had to say that it “became flesh”. Possibly “became” (egeneto) was chosen because of its use in verse 3: “all things became (egeneto) through him, and apart from him nothing became (egeneto). But I’m not sure that’s really necessary.

There is no question that “the Word” of John 1 echoes Wisdom of Proverbs 8. The question which needs to asked is what John is doing with the association. John has certainly taken up the language of Genesis 1 to speak of a new beginning in Jesus, and does so by drawing our attention to the creation of the world, not by suggesting anything less, or that the comparison should not be taken literally.The Proverbs 8 Wisdom idea means that just as Wisdom is personified in Proverbs 8 as being present at God’s creation of the world in a number of ways, so the Word is present “with Good”, but in this case, also “was God”.

Your depersonalisation of “Word” by using the pronoun “it” is your own editorial interpretation. John’s use of “autos” is directly linked to Jesus 1:27, and thereafter with Jesus (as it is in the synoptic gospels). Why should it mean anything different in 1:1-4?

Wisdom in Proverbs need be no more than a figure of speech for God’s activity, though pointing to the wisdom of the person through whom the activity was predicated. John was being very careless, lacking literary sensitivity, or perhaps deliberate by presenting Logos as a divine person, which seems to be an inescapable conclusion of the meaning of “theos en ho logos”. But see below for Philo.

You don’t comment on John’s choice of the term Logos, when Sophia was the Septuagint word in Proverbs, and the more obvious term, in the light of its N.T. usage eg 1 Cor. 1:30. A conclusion to be drawn is that John is broadening the meaning of the Proverbs association with Logos, to include a wider O.T. usage (as the direct spoken word of God to bring about his purposes), and possibly its use in classical Greek thought too as the reason and energy which lies at the heart of all things. If this were so, Christ as the Word is a worldwide divinity, with a claim on all people who inhabit his worldwide creation.

You describe John 1-3 in terms that limit its significance and make it simply introductory to the Word’s activity (that through Jesus people received life, and that life was the light of the gospel which the darkness could not overcome). But here too there is an extension of the association with Genesis 1, where light appears on day 1, preceding “lights” of day 4, which produce “living things” and “living creatures” on day 5 & 6. In other words, the association with Genesis 1 continues, in a way that draws attention to itself, rather than being an incidental comparison which John uses.

Morris says that there is nothing to link Jesus and the Word until verse 14. I’d have thought John starts to create the link at least in verse 5, where the light of the creative Logos (and verse 3 seems to combine Logos and God as the creative agent), becomes identified with Jesus in steps, through verses 7, 8, and 9. The fact that Jesus later self-identifies as “the light of the world” would seem to make John’s meaning clear in John 1. Anyway, Morris would be horrified to think you were using him to argue that Jesus was anything but divine.

Of Philo, perhaps the best that can be said is that since he was misreading Genesis 31:13, it would be unwise to build any theology of Word on what he says - which is already convoluted enough as it is. Genesis 31:13 was not making the distinction between God with the definite article and God (“the sacred word) without it.

Your argument and citations in 6. equally demonstrate the opposite. “While the Word is God, God is more than just the Word”. Well yes, if Jesus was with God and was God. Origen’s observation could be taken to mean all manner of things or nothing. His definition of the Word is described thus: “the person of the Word was not reduced to a role or an office. The son is … Living Wisdom. He is verily and substantially God” (Coptic Orthodox Church Network).

I simply don’t think it is the case, or even necessary, to say that “the specific narrative point has been sacrificed in the interests of metaphysical coherence”. Jesus was the bearer of the new creation in himself. He made the old, and brought forth the new. The narrative of John’s gospel finds coherence when read within this framework. The framework serves as a commentary on the synoptic gospels and Paul’s letters, since each finds coherence when understood in this way. The new creation was the eschatological now, not a dim and distant horizon. The sense of the gospel of the kingdom (even as used in John’s gospel, though “life” seems to serve as its preferred alternative) is the bringing of the new creation into people’s lives in the “now”. This entailed the end of the old covenant age, Israel and its temple, and and the relativisation of Rome’s place and authority itself with its arch pretensions to have brought in “the golden age”.

Your depersonalisation of “Word” by using the pronoun “it” is your own editorial interpretation. John’s use of “autos” is directly linked to Jesus 1:27, and thereafter with Jesus (as it is in the synoptic gospels). Why should it mean anything different in 1:1-4?

It’s hardly an “editorial interpretation”. If you start reading the book at the beginning, as Leon Morris observed, you would naturally take houtos and autos as references to the “word”, which is not a person. John does not say, “In the beginning was the Son…” or “In the beginning was Jesus…”. The reference, presumably, is to the creative word by which God spoke all things into being in Genesis 1.

The most natural way, then, to understand verse 14 is that this creative word came to be embodied in the person of Jesus. The creative word/wisdom, which was with God and was divine, became flesh, meaning, theologically, that the beginning of the “Jesus movement” was a new act of creation, comparable to the original act of creation inasmuch as everything came about (egeneto) through him.

The theological point that Philo makes is not dependent on his misreading of Genesis 31:13. He believes that there is a solid grammatical justification for the distinction.

Origen draws a parallel between ho theos and theos and ho logos and logos. In both cases he regards the noun with the article as inferior and derivative. So the expression theos ēn ho logos means that the superior form of logos is equated with the inferior for of theos.

Chrysostom recognises that the absence of the article before theos in “the Word was theos may readily be taken to mean that the Word is somewhat less than God, a “misunderstanding” which he attempts rather unconvincingly to forestall:

See, he says, how the Father is named with the addition of the article but the Son without it. What do you do then when the apostle says, “The great God, and our Savior Jesus Christ,”89 and again, “Who is above all, God”? … For having before said, “and the Word was God,” so that no one might suppose the Godhead of the Son to be inferior, he immediately adds the characteristics of genuine Godhead, including eternity, for “He was,” says he, “in the beginning with God,” and attributes to him the office of creator. (Homilies on the Gospel of John 4.3)

And then there is Ramsay Michaels observation” “While the Word is God, God is more than just the Word.”

I am simply suggesting that this difference between the Word and God is explained by the fact that the Word is God’s creative purpose, or it is God as a creative force; and it is this which became flesh in Jesus, which is an extraordinary enough statement. The standard English translation (“the Word was with God, and the Word was God”) fails to capture this distinction, so we end up with an apparent assertion of ontology rather than a narrative of creative action.

So it is then a theological interpretation to read the personal identity of the human Jesus back into John 1:1-3.

I think it’s unlikely that the “light” motif in John 1:4-13 is a continuation of the creation story. Before the light there is life (Jn. 1:4); and there is no conflict between light and darkness in the creation story, simply the regular pattern of night and day. The direct association of Wisdom and light is found in Ben Sirach:

she is more beautiful than the sun and above every constellation of stars. Compared with the light, she is found to be more radiant; for this is succeeded by the night, but against wisdom wickedness does not prevail. (Wis. 7:29–30)

John says in verse 5 that the light shines (present tense) in the darkness because the darkness was unable to overcome it (aorist). He is speaking in abstractions, similar to the Ben Sirach passage, about something that transcends the historical particulars: the creative word of God has generated a life of the age to come which is a new light in John’s world. But he is also thinking of the specific historical persons and events (John the Baptist, the opposition of the Jews to Jesus) that underlay the symbolic narrative about light and darkness.

Yes, Logos probably refers in the first place to the word with which God spoke and creation came to be. However, in John, it is not “word” in an impersonal sense, as the first verse seems to make clear. The word was with God, and the word was God. Whatever you make of the appearance or not of the definite article, this is not how you would speak of an abstract or non personal “word”, which was no more than a “word” that God uttered. The Word is already personal, not an “it”.

My proposal is precisely that autos suggests the personal, and that while in v.3 as with houtos in v.2 it refers to “word”, that “word” is already personal, and is identified with Jesus beginning in v.5 and by stages in 7, 8, and 9, and complete by 10. By v.27, the identification (of autos) is emphatic, though it’s clear enough by 10, and certainly by 14, as Morris says.

The other problem of saying that wisdom came to be embodied in Jesus is that the LXX OT word is not logos, but sophia, the latter being grammatically feminine. However, there was a late tradition which posited a “logos” figure, who was an intermediary between God and matter in creation, but this picked up a Greek idea of the “non-goodness” of matter, which plainly is contrary to the Hebrew creation narrative. To this, Philo added the Greek idea of logos, into which was woven the theory of definite articles, or absence thereof, to which you have alluded.

So I understand where you are coming from, and at a stretch you could read it into John 1. I think you’d have to be very determined to do so, not least for the reasons I’ve given.

“In him was life, and that life was the light of men”. Certainly, wisdom is presented as the pathway of life, eg in Proverbs 2, 7. But there is no precedent for (as I think you concede) or prediction of a “wisdom” that “became flesh and lived amongst us”. And then there is that replacement of wisdom with logos to be accounted for. John was not simply talking about wisdom as sophia. He may have been aware of the post exile “logos” identification with an an angelic/sub-divine/semi-divine intermediary, though it doesn’t work in the Hebrew creation narrative for the reason given (and more importantly because the Hebrew version doesn’t mention it!).

Also, it wasn’t wisdom that came to dwell in the tabernacle, which Jesus echoes of himself in v.14, but God, and his glory (v.14b). In OT terms, wisdom was an aspect of God, but certainly not God himself, nor his glory.

You return to wisdom in the paragraph where you quote Sirach to illustrate the association of wisdom with light. It doesn’t quite do this, but says that wisdom “is more radiant than light”. But John was not, in the end, talking about this kind of wisdom (sophia), though I’m sure that was in the background via Proverbs 8, but logos, which, despite what you have said, was personalised without any suggestion of figurative language, and both lived with God and was God, definite articles notwithstanding. The fine distinction of the latter seems to pass unnoticed and certainly unremarked on and undeveloped by John.

Whatever you make of the appearance or not of the definite article, this is not how you would speak of an abstract or non personal “word”, which was no more than a “word” that God uttered.

But you can’t dismiss the evidence regarding the sense of the anarthrous form (“Whatever you make of the appearance or not of the definite article…”) and then merely assert that “word” is personal. You have to address the evidence. Were Philo, Origen, Chrysostom and Michaels wrong? Why were they wrong? Do you have literary or linguistic counter-evidence that supports the argument that houtos has to be understood as personal? And if it is in some sense “personal”, how we would prove that John was specifically thinking of Jesus and not of a personified “word” analogous to personified “wisdom”?

The point might benefit from further exploration - certainly more than you have provided. Meanwhile I have raised numerous objections to your principle conclusions about John 1 which remain to be addressed.

And actually, rereading what i said to which you made your comment, even if we were to accept the proposal about theos and logos according to the interpretation suggested, the alternative is not between an impersonal “creative force”, as you put it, and a personal being, but two personal beings, one a lesser being. This does not take the interpretation of John 1 where you want it to.

The context of John 1 does not take us in either direction however, for the reasons I have already cited.

I have responded to Ramsay Michael’s statement already - and I agree with it, but don’t take it to mean what he seems to be saying by it. On the face of it, it is merely restating a traditional understanding of John 1!