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

When exactly did the Word become flesh?

In the beginning, which may have been either the beginning of creation or the beginning of new creation, or both, the Word was with God, and the Word in some sense was God. This is John’s reworking of a familiar Jewish Wisdom motif, probably with a view to linking it with the prevalent Hellenistic idea that the logos , as “word” or “reason”, underpins reality. All things were made through this divine Word or Wisdom; in it was life, and the life was the light of humanity. This Word-Wisdom-life-light shines in the darkness; it was not extinguished by the dark events that are about to be described in the ensuing Gospel narrative.

John the Baptist was sent by God to bear witness to the powerful reality of this creative life-giving light, which at that moment “was coming into the world” in the person of Jesus. He was as yet unknown to the world, and the Jews rejected him, but “to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn. 1:12–13).

The assertion in verse 14, therefore, that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” belongs to the story about John the Baptist and the reception of Jesus.

The birth of Jesus as such is of no theological interest to John. It is the beginning of the dynamic realisation of the purposes of God that matters.

That the Word or Wisdom of God “camped among us” means that it took up transitory, vagrant residence in Israel, among the Jews, in a manner analogous to the presence of God in the tabernacle the midst of his people. It does not describe his life prior to his baptism, before he received the Spirit.

When John the Evangelist says, “we saw his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14), I suggest that the aorist (etheasametha) points to a moment when the disciples perceived the sonship of Jesus. If this were one of the Synoptic Gospels, we might take this as a reference to the transfiguration. The author of 2 Peter writes:

For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. (2 Pet. 1:17–18)

But in John’s Gospel the reference must be to the baptism of Jesus. It is precisely the testimony of John the Baptist that Jesus ranked above him; he identifies him as the Lamb of God; he sees the Spirit descending upon him; and he declares that he has seen (heōraka) and borne witness that “this is the Son of God” (Jn. 1:15, 29-34). At this point in the story, the glory of Jesus is disclosed specifically in the identification of him as the Son of God at his baptism.

John the Baptist explains his own mission in the words of Isaiah 40:3: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said” (Jn. 1:23). It is likely, therefore, that the account of Jesus’ baptism, as in the Synoptics, echoes the anointing of the servant of YHWH in Isaiah 42:1:

Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.

Jesus has been revealed by his baptism and through the testimony of John as the servant who will liberate his captive people and bring the justice of God to the surrounding nations (Is. 42:1-7).

That he is also, according to John’s testimony, the “Son of God” presumably brings Psalm 2:7 LXX into play: “The Lord said to me, ‘My son you are; today I have begotten (gegennēka) you.”

Elsewhere in the New Testament this is used with reference to the resurrection or exaltation of Jesus, which is the “day” on which YHWH installed his king and gave him the nations as his heritage, to rule with a rod of iron (Ps. 2:8; cf. Acts 13:33; Rom. 1:4; Heb. 1:5; 5:5; Rev. 2:27; 12:5; 19:15).

The connotation may have some relevance here—Nathanael will later declare, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (Jn. 1:49). And perhaps the description of Jesus as the “only begotten” (monogenēs) God/Son who is “at the side of the Father” is also a reference to the now exalted Son who, when alive, “interpreted” or “exegeted” (exēgēsato) God for his disciples. If theos rather than huios is the correct reading here, which is by no means certain, then it is the resurrected and exalted Jesus who is “God”, not a pre-existent “Son”. It is after the resurrection that Thomas acclaims Jesus as “My Lord and my God” (Jn. 20:28).

But there are other precedents in the Wisdom literature for monogenēs. On the one hand, Wisdom, who is the “fashioner of all things”, has a spirit that is “only begotten” or “unique” (monogenes: Wis. 7:21-22). On the other, the Lord disciplines Israel as a “firstborn, an only son” (monogenē: Pss. Sol. 18:4).

So I think that we can say something along these lines: the creative intention of God became flesh when Jesus was revealed as the servant or Son, the true Israel, who would bring righteousness to Israel and, as the exalted Son seated at the right hand of the Father, justice to the nations.

The birth of Jesus as such is of no theological interest to John. It is the beginning of the dynamic realisation of the purposes of God that matters. Even in the Synoptics the significance of the virgin conception is prophetic rather than metaphysical: it is a sign that God is present with his people to judge and restore.

The later church, no doubt for good reasons, came to celebrate the birth of Jesus as the moment when the godhead was veiled in flesh, when deity became incarnate. But for John, as for the Synoptic tradition, it is the mission of Jesus as the anointed Son to Israel that is immediately in view.


If you press that line to its logical conclusion, don’t you end up at least entertaining the possibility that John is narrating a Spirit-adoptionist christology?

I don’t think “adoptionist” is the right word. It belongs to a later conceptuality and debate. Jesus is already a Jew, already a son; he is chosen as an exceptional representative of Israel at this moment, he is empowered for a specific purpose, and he carries it out obediently. Paul uses the metaphor in a different context to speak of the participation of believers in the story of Jesus, but that’s different.

What John does, I think, is forge a connection between the idea that the creative Word of God became flesh in Jesus and began the work of constructing a new world and the baptism narrative, which runs more or less along lines established in the Synoptic Gospels that go back to Isaiah 42.

I confess “adoptionist” is my shorthand, and I have sometimes entertained the possibility of the nexus you outline here. In the end, however, I’ve not been persuaded that it does justice to the narrative as a whole, nor to the idea of “having come in the flesh”. At the same time I don’t believe any statement in John is entirely straightforward – he invites ambiguity. But my thanks for a very thought-provoking post.

Thank you, Doug. The context of the statement in 1 John is not the same as the Prologue:

By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. (1 Jn. 4:2–3)

I’m not sure it serves as a gloss on John’s “the Word became flesh”. For a start, I wonder whether the point in 1 John 4 is not that the pre-existing Jesus became flesh but that the exalted Lord previously existed in human form. By the end of the first century believers in Greece and Asia Minor only knew of the “spiritual” Jesus, who was proclaimed as the heavenly Lord who would come to deliver them. It seems quite possible to me that the writer of the letter was opposing a gnosticising of Jesus by stressing that he first came in the flesh.