p.ost

(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”.

Comments

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!

… the creative force known to the Greeks as logos was in fact the creator God of Israel …

The becoming flesh (…) 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.

I understand that you may be enamoured with your Narrative-Historical Method, but aren’t you taking it a bit to an extreme?

You have constructed your whole post as though the author of the Gospel of John had filched the notion of the “creative force known to the Greeks as logos” from Greek philosophy, or at least from (the Jewish Middle-Platonic theologian-philosopher) Philo of Alexandria.

It may help you to revise your ideas to consider that the logos of John is the dabar of which we read:

By the word [dabar] of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath [ruach] of his mouth all their host. (Ps 33:6)

Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and mist,stormy wind fulfilling his word [dabar]! (Ps 148:7-8)

No doubt the post could have been clearer, and it’s probably too schematic, but the argument traces the motif all the way back to Genesis 1, though I rather think that the Wisdom story is more important than Genesis 1:1-3:

“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….

I argued for a comparison with Philo, not dependency: “We find a similar fusion of the biblical and the philosophical in Philo’s comments on Genesis 2:4…”.

I’m not convinced that John’s language points to the Psalms. Wisdom themes seem to me more relevant.

[Andrew] I’m not convinced that John’s language points to the Psalms.

As you are “not convinced”, you may want to consider another verse from another Psalm:

Forever, O Lord, your word [logos] is firmly fixed in the heavens. (Ps 119:89 [LXX])

And as you seem to give importance to the Church Fathers, you may want to consider this, for starters:

And, since God is rational [logikos], therefore by (the) Word [logos] He created the things that were made; and God is Spirit [pneuma], and by (the) Spirit He adorned all things: as also the prophet says: By the word of the Lord were the heavens established, and by his spirit all their power [Ps 33:6 - cp. LXX]. (Irenaeus, The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, @ ccel.org)

[Andrew] Wisdom themes seem to me more relevant.

Surely you know that much hochmah/sophia literature is late and apocryphal.

The three obvious texts (to my mind) for understanding the Logos story in John’s prologue are not late: Prov. 8:22-31; Sirach 24:8-12; 1 Enoch 42:1-2. Ben Sirach is early second century BC, and scholars currently appear to date the Similitudes of Enoch AD 50-120. It’s hard to dismiss the relevance of the Sirach passage, though obviously John develops the point differently:

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. 24:8–12)

The Enoch text puts an ironic spin on the motif at around the same time that John reworked the story:

Wisdom went forth to make her dwelling among the children of men, And found no dwelling-place: Wisdom returned to her place, And took her seat among the angels. And unrighteousness went forth from her chambers: Whom she sought not she found, And dwelt with them, As rain in a desert And dew on a thirsty land. (1 En. 42:2–3)

There is an obvious problem with the “obvious texts” that you indicate for your ” understanding the Logos story in John’s prologue”: they ALL refer to wisdom/sophia/chokmah, NOT to word/logos/dabar.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the two are, to some extent, semantically interchangeable, and that the reference, for either, is to the “creative force” of God. An assumption that I have no difficulty to make, even if it would have to receive adequate historical-philological support.

The real point, though is this: isn’t it arbitrarily reductive to claim that the “becoming flesh” of this creative force called word/logos/dabar or wisdom/sophia/chokmah should be understood as a coming to Israel “by way of Israel’s story”, yet this should not include any strong reference to the historical man Jesus, as we find him in the texts that refer to him, and in particular the Gospel of John?

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the two are, to some extent, semantically interchangeable, and that the reference, for either, is to the “creative force” of God.

I’m not sure they need to be “semantically interchangeable”. Perhaps they become conceptually interchangeable against a Hellenistic background? What strikes me, though, primarily, is that within Jewish traditions they have become narratively interchangeable. John tells a story about logos that is remarkably similar to stories that were being told about Wisdom. That is a historical-literary judgment rather than a “historical-philological” judgment.

Your question, though, baffles me. My argument is precisely that the creative power of God as Word or Wisdom became flesh, specifically in the context of Israel’s story and for Israel, in the historical person of Jesus. Perhaps, as I’ve said elsewhere, John thought of Jesus’ baptism as the “moment” when this happened, which brings John into closer alignment with the Synoptics. But in any case, the point is that through the life and death of Jesus the living God brought about a “new creation”. The church came to interpret the becoming flesh metaphysically, but that is not required by the text. What the text says is that the creative dynamic named as logos found a new embodiment in the person of Jesus.

If wisdom/sophia/chokmah, and word/logos/dabar both refer to the same “creative force” of God, they are interchangeable. You are simply splitting … semantic hairs.

As for your insistence on the Hellenistic background, while it is perfectly clear to me that “Wisdom themes seem to [you] more relevant”, you seem to have a real blind spot for word/logos/dabar, in particular for the dabar. In case you have forgotten it, you are using sophia as the explicans of the logos in the Prologue of John, which remains the explicandum. Not vice versa.

Again, you are splitting … philological hairs in what you say immediately after, opposing “historical-literary” to  “historical-philological”. But obviously you are convinced to have found a satisfactory interpretation of the “narration”, and who cares why John chose to speak of logos, rather than of sophia.

I take good note that you affirm that “the creative power of God as Word or Wisdom became flesh, specifically in the context of Israel’s story and for Israel, in the historical person of Jesus”, rather than, generically, in Israel’s people at the time of Jesus. It would be appropriate, though, to add that Israel, in its predominant majority, rejected Jesus and his claims.

I obviously disagree with you that “John thought of Jesus’ baptism” as the “moment” of the ensarkosis of the logos. It all probably stems from confusing and conflating the eskēnōsen and the sarx egeneto, referred to the same logos, at John 1:14.

As for the interpretation of becoming flesh by the church , the problem is not that it was metaphysical, but that the church interpreted the logos as pre-existent (ultimately even co-equal and co-eternal) personal entity. Marcellus of Ancyra was perfectly capable of conciling the metaphysical homoousios of Nicea 325 with the non-personal character of the logos. Unfortunately the Cappadocian scoundrels won, by the time of Constantinople 381.

As for your insistence on the Hellenistic background…

That was using “background” in a different sense—not the source of the language but the general cultural background against which the language was interpreted. The source of the logos theme is Jewish, but the theme acquired new resonances in the echo chamber of Hellenistic thought. Sorry for not being clearer.

In case you have forgotten it, you are using sophia as the explicans of the logos in the Prologue of John, which remains the explicandum. Not vice versa.

Not quite. I am using stories about wisdom (eg., Prov. 8:22-31; Wis. 7:22; Sir. 24:8-12; 1 En. 42:1-2) to explicate stories about the word. There are no corresponding stories about the “word” that account for the two key thoughts in the Prologue: first, that the word was actively “with God” in the work of creation, and secondly, that the word pitched its tent in Israel. No doubt John’s Jewish readers would also have heard overtones of the “word” by which all things were, but that seems to me secondary.

It would be appropriate, though, to add that Israel, in its predominant majority, rejected Jesus and his claims.

Of course, that’s central to both the Prologue and the Gospel.

It all probably stems from confusing and conflating the eskēnōsen and the sarx egeneto, referred to the same logos, at John 1:14.

Why shouldn’t they be conflated? They quite naturally refer to the same moment.

The source of the logos theme is Jewish, but the theme acquired new resonances in the echo chamber of Hellenistic thought.

This is your biased, unsupported claim. John owes nothing to Philo & Co. He was thinking of the dabar.

Why shouldn’t they [the eskēnōsen and the sarx egeneto in John 1:14] be conflated? They quite naturally refer to the same moment.

Wishful thinking! That is what would suit you, with your preference for the “Wisdom themes”. Pity that that combination of logos and sarx is not paralleled anywhere else by a similar combination of sophia and sarx (or chokmah and basar).

Is logos and sarx ever paralleled by logos and sarx?

I’m just curious what you’re thinking here. I’m open to correction, but it seems to me that this is a unique construction such that there’s not another specific usage we can turn to in order to shed light on it.

It would be like mocking someone for failing to demonstrate a parallel use of theopneustos that supported their view of inspiration. There’s just… not really a lot of other uses to turn to.

Dear Phil, what I object to is the claim that the logos (dabar) in John’s prologue can be explained by the use of sophia (chokmah), not only it its “dwelling among us” (which is relatively easy and has parallels), but also in its “becoming flesh”, which is, indeed a hapax (#) in the NT … just like theopneustos in 2Ti 3.16, BTW.

A little help may come, perhaps, from:

In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind [basar ‘iysh, “flesh of man”, “human flesh”] (Job 12:10)

(#) Hapax: “a word that only appears once in a work of or genus of literature or in a body of work by a particular author” (Collins)

You keep misreading me. I did not say that John owes anything to Philo. These are the texts that I listed: Prov. 8:22-31; Wis. 7:22; Sir. 24:8-12; 1 En. 42:1-2. The point about Hellenistic background has to do with reception, not composition.

Wishful thinking! That is what would suit you, with your preference for the “Wisdom themes”. Pity that that combination of logos and sarx is not paralleled anywhere else by a similar combination of sophia and sarx (or chokmah and basar).

You also disregarded my point about stories rather than just words. The reason I think that the Wisdom tradition is partly formative for John’s language lies not in the combination of logos and sarx but in the narrative of dwelling. Creative wisdom encamped (kataskēnōson) in Israel (Sir. 24:8). “Wisdom went forth to make her dwelling among the children of men, And found no dwelling-place” (1 En. 42:2). The creative word of God became flesh and dwelt (eskēnōsen) in Israel. Three parallel stories though put to very different ends.

No I don’t. It’s you who keep repeating yourself in spite of my debunking.

I have tried to post my brief comments of your “obvious texts”, but I keep getting:

Forbidden. Message seems to be spam.