"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 1

Section 1: The Prologue (Jn 1.1-18)

GENERAL COMMENTS

 

No other gospel begins like the Gospel According to John: the prologue is quite unique. At one time, most scholars agreed that a hymn about the Word, or Logos, in part underlies it, although they were not agreed on exactly which verses contain parts of the hymn. Lately an alternative theory has gained favour with some scholars, based on a rhetorical perspective, that sees the sections about the Logos as written in a high, poetic style, but not part of an originally separate poem. This seems to fit well both with the way that the Evangelist interweaves the story of the Logos' life with God with the story of the Logos among us and the story of John the Baptist and with the way the prologue foreshadows many themes explored in greater detail in the rest of the gospel.

If we consider the possibility of a Logos-hymn underlying the prologue, we need first to answer the question of its authorship -- was the Evangelist working with a hymn that he himself had written, or a liturgical text whose origins lay elsewhere, perhaps in the community among whom he was writing? It is not possible of course to know the answer to such a question, but the sort of stylistic considerations revealed by rhetorical analysis do seem to suggest a single author at work on a single composition (see, for example, Nässelqvist 2012 pp 44-52). In any case, according to the hymn theory, the Logos-hymn is probably to be found in verses 1-5, 10-11, and 14 (see Brown 1966 pp 21-3 for a discussion of that scholarly debate as well as Brown's own outline of the prologue).

A more important question is: where does the figure of the Word come from? Scholars have explored a variety of possible sources: the OT and OT Apocrypha; the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher and exegete, Philo of Alexandria; pagan Hellenistic thought; Gnosticism; the Dead Sea Scrolls Community; Rabbinic Judaism (see Edwards 2003 pp 87-91 for a brief review of the main theories). Over the last several decades, most scholarship has veered away from the various Hellenistic options to locate the Johannine 'Word' within the startlingly broad range of first-century CE Palestinian Jewish thought. Further the relationship between the first verses of the Fourth Gospel and the first verses of Genesis is being recognised for what it can tell us about the origin of the Word (see, eg, Bauckham 2007 p 240). We should likely also look to the ways the Word of God and the divine Wisdom are portrayed in Psalms, Proverbs, Wisdom, and Ecclesiasticus (see Brown 1966 pp 519-24 for a discussion of the possible sources of the figure of the Logos and see also Edwards 1988 pp 10-11). And we should be wary of solutions that take away too much in the way of originality from the Evangelist.

Whatever the combination of scriptural ideas and exegesis upon which he drew, the Evangelist brought them together in a way that still startles us with its newness today. And his subsequent fusion of the figure of the Word with elements related to the apostolic preaching found elsewhere in the NT created a prologue that recaps the main themes of the Gospel itself. In the prologue we learn that the Word was God and became flesh in Jesus Christ; that through belief in the Word we can all become children of God, that is, participate in the same relationship with the Father that the Word has; that John the Baptist came as the forerunner to the incarnate Word; that in Jesus we receive God's covenant love. These themes and others foreshadowed in the prologue illuminate the Gospel as a whole. In that light it is likely that the prologue (and the epilogue: see below, pp 000-00) were the last sections of the Gospel to be written. As already set out in the introduction, however, this is not meant to imply that there was a 'first edition' of the Gospel that circulated without those sections but rather that the Evangelist, like many other authors, composed his introduction last.

 

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COMMENTS ON SPECIFIC VERSES

 

Right here at the start of his gospel, we can see that the Evangelist engages in a dialogue with Mark's Gospel. Mark had begun his gospel with a short prologue in which the phrase “the beginning of the good news of Jesus the Messiah” is connected with the preaching and baptismal ministry of John the Baptiser. The evangelist John also began with a prologue, longer than Mark's, which stressed the importance of John the Baptist and his ministry. But he took the same word “beginning” (“arche” in Greek), used it in a brief quote of the start of Genesis (“In the beginning”), and thereby removed the beginning of the good news about Jesus from the earthly realm entirely and into the heart of God. The rest of John's prologue mixes the divine realm with the human realm of John the Baptist's ministry and witness.

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'[P]erson' here translates the Greek word 'anthrōpos' (ἄνθρωπος), human being. So what distinguishes John the Baptist from the Word is not that he is a man, but that he is human, as opposed to God.

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Here in the prologue we learn that the Word is light for the world: just as Torah is light to the world, so is Jesus. So Jesus is not just the prophet like Moses, ie, a new Moses, he is also the new Torah -- see Bauckham 2007 pp 133-4.

[[Think more abt Bauckham 2007 chs 12 & 13, esp re epilogue and prologue]]

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The Greek noun used here is 'kosmos' (κόσμος). Its usual meaning is 'world' in the sense of the created order. The cosmos is the material creation, the world and all that is in it. In Biblical Greek it sometimes carries the overtone of creation in distinction to its Creator. This is how it is used in these verses. When the light enters the material world, that is, the created order, it also passes from the Creator's realm into that of creation. Used in this sense, 'kosmos' sometimes carries a sense of 'everybody, the whole world', as in Jn 12.19 or 18.20. Later in this gospel we shall see the word used not simply to distinguish between creation and Creator, but to express a sense that creation and Creator are in opposition to each other. In this usage, the world, although remaining the Creator's work, becomes not simply a realm distinct from that of the Creator but one opposed to the Creator. It has become hostile to the Creator because its ruler is Satan, the Adversary (see Appendix 4 for a discussion of the role of Satan in John's Gospel). The word is used in this way, or in a fluid sense that seems to slide between the two senses, in Jn 7.7 ('The world cannot hate you but it does hate me, because I bear witness to the world that its works are wicked.'); 12.31 ('Now is the judgement of this world -- now the ruler of this world will be driven away!'); 14.17ff, 15.18-19, 16.8, 16.11, 16.20-21, 17.9, and 17.13-14.

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The three phrases here (those begotten not of blood nor by the will of the flesh nor by the will of a man) are difficult to translate and interpret because of the difficulty in understanding 'aimatwn' 'αἱμάτων', 'blood' (literally 'bloods'). Does it refer to kindred and lineage as reasons to beget a child? Could it be an allusion to Greek medical theories of human conception (eg, that the mother supplied from her blood the material from which an embryo was formed; see Brown 1966 p19)? Whatever the answer, it seems that the evangelist wanted to emphasise that God's motive in begetting children has no relation to human motives for doing so.

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The Greek verb translated here as 'made a tabernacle', eskēnōsen (ἐσκήνωσεν), literally means to pitch a tent or to live in a tent. What makes it significant here is that the root noun, skēnē (σκηνή), 'tent', is used in the LXX to refer to the Tent (or Tabernacle) of the Presence, that is, the place where the divine Presence makes a home among mortals, first during the wilderness journey of Exodus and later in the Temple. In the prophets (Joel 3.17, Zechariah 2.10, and Ezekiel 43.7) a related verb is used to describe God dwelling with or among God's people. So when the Evangelist refers to the Word as making a tabernacle among us, he is at the very least comparing the dwelling of the divine Presence with God's people in the Tabernacle with the dwelling of the Word among us in the Incarnation, if not implying that the latter has replaced the former. The fact that later in the same verse, he speaks of our beholding the Father's glory in the incarnate Word, reinforces this point, because in the First Testament the glory of God is connected with God's presence among God's people. See Brown 1966 pp 32-4 for further discussion of these points.

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In this reference to seeing glory we learn that the act of seeing reveals the glory which the Word shares with the Father and makes visible to the world. As we will read in v18, the Son is the only one to see the Father, but rather than treating this as exclusionary, the Evangelist has created a chain of shared revelation. The Son sees the Father and makes the Father known; we see the Son's glory because the incarnate Word has made a dwelling place among us, and by so doing we see the Father indirectly through the Son.

Who exactly is the 'we' doing the seeing in v14? Is it the Elder speaking as an eyewitness on behalf of the community of eyewitnesses? Or is this one of the rare appearances of his followers in an editorial addition? Numerical correspondences between the prologue and epilogue of the gospel suggest that the gospel is a seamless composition by a single author with an interest in numerology in his approach to composition and scriptural interpretation. If so, the BD is still the author here, but associates fellow eyewitnesses in the community with himself as jointly guaranteeing Jesus' identity.

In his commentary on John, Bultmann reminds us that because of what the evangelists have done for us who come after, we can think of the words 'we have seen' as something other than words spoken by a limited number of eye-witnesses in the past. Instead, we can see that because there were once believing eye-witnesses, now those words are spoken by all believers (see Bultmann 1971 p 70).

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There is considerable discussion about the meaning of the Greek phrase translated 'steadfast love' here and in v17, 'charis kai alētheia' (χάρις καὶ ἀληθεί), literally 'grace and truth'. Many scholars feel the Greek expression is equivalent to the pairing of the Hebrew terms 'hesed' and 'emet', referring to God's covenant love and faithfulness, thus suggesting our translation. Such considerations lead Brown to translate as 'enduring love' (see Brown 1966 p14).They have also led scholars to highlight a possible connection with Exodus 34.6: 'The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed, "The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness".' In the Fourth Gospel these Greek words only appear to bear this sense when joined together in this way; elsewhere in the gospel, they bear their normal meanings of 'grace' and 'truth'.

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The NRSV translators have continued to use the traditional translation of 'upon' for the Greek preposition 'anti' here but there is a good case to be made for translating it as 'instead of', as I have done. When we do so, our understanding of the text changes. The Evangelist's theological point would then be that both the Law which came through Moses and the new covenant love through Jesus are God's grace and further that the covenant love and faithfulness which are God's gracious gift in Jesus Christ in some measure take the place of God's gracious gift of the Law in Moses. See Edwards 1988 and Winter 2010 for discussions of this interpretation.

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