Reflections on John’s Prologue

Reflections on John’s Prologue December 19, 2020


The prologue to the Gospel of John is one of the Rubik’s Cubes of biblical studies, a set of puzzles, riddles, and questions that challenge interpreters.[1] Everything, literally everything about the prologue is disputed: religious background, origins, redaction, structure, intertextuality, literary analysis, narrative function, theology, and reception. I have no intention to explore them all. Suffice to say that John the Evangelist’s opening stichs about the Logos are pregnant with a cosmos of theological significance. The notable words are, of course, Jn 1:1-5, 14: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. … And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” In brief, John’s prologue is a feat of christological midrash on Gen 1:1, intentionally merged with scriptural witness to God’s creative speech-acts, primitive confessions of the pre-existent Son of God, Jewish Hellenistic wisdom traditions, messianic discourse, and fashioned in such a way as to deliberately resource and resonate with tropes in Greco-Roman philosophy.[2] In effect, John takes the Logos, a malleable yet popular concept in Greco-Roman philosophy for cosmic rationality, and he baptizes it in Jewish wisdom traditions and re-codes it with christological meaning. The assertion is astounding as Schnelle notes: “John is expressing a universal claim: the Logos Jesus Christ has come forth from his original unity with God, he is God’s own creative power, he is the origin and goal of all being, and in the Logos Jesus Christ the religious and intellectual history of antiquity reaches its goal.”[3]

In Johannine testimony, the Word is more than an intermediary with unusual proximity to God, rather, the Word is intrinsic to God’s self-revelation, shares in God’s God-ness, demonstrates God’s participation in humanity, and participates in God’s unique identity as creator.

First, the statement that God has in the archē, eternity past, always had a Word, indicates God’s intrinsic self-communicative nature and that God’s self-communication consists of his Word. The Logos emerges in vv. 4-5 from divine transcendence, even hiddenness, to bring illumination and life to those in mired noetic falsehood and moral darkness. The provocative point behind v. 18 is that no one sees God without seeing his Word, just as no-one can understand the things of heaven except for the Son of Man who came down from heaven (3:11-13), just as no-one can hear God’s voice, see his form, or harbour his word without believing in the Son (5:37-38), just as no-one can come to the Father apart from him (14:6). The Word is the sine qua non of revelation. After the prologue, the Logos christology does not recede, it is rather modulated in the unfolding drama of the revelation of God’s messianic saviour. This is evident in the stress placed on Jesus’s logoi where the Word is expressed in the very words of Jesus.[4] Jesus’s words focus on explaining the themes of life, light, truth, and knowing, with a particular emphasis too on the Father-Son relationship, which at least partly validates Bultmann’s observation that the Johannine Jesus is the revealed Revealer.[5] The “one true God” (17:4), then, is “exegeted” (1:18) and made known (17:4-8, 26) in Jesus the Christ (20:31). God reveals himself as creator and saviour only as God reveals, creates, and saves in, by, and through his Word. The Logos is, then, God in his revelation.[6]

Second, the Word is more than “towards” or “close” to God, as the Word “was” God” and is therefore in an intrinsic unity with God (1:1-2). Whereas Mark introduces Jesus with the beginning of the gospel of God, John introduces his Gospel with Jesus at the centre of creation’s beginning by God. John’s prologue and the Gospel indicate far more than the Word’s ideal pre-existence, as if the Word were an idea or plan that God hatched in eternity passed. A personal pre-existence is strongly implied by Word’s intense proximity with God and agency in creation (1:1-3), Jesus identifying himself with God’s name as the one who “is” from Exod 3:14 (8:58), his heavenly origins (3:13, 31; 6:32-58, 62; 8:23, 42; 16:27-28), scriptural imagery which makes him the nexus between heaven and earth (1:51), and his sharing in divine glory prior to creation (17:5). The opening words of the prologue intend a simple yet fundamental claim: God has an eternal Word, a Word that is interior to God and intrinsically God, and that which is true of God is also true of his Word. John sets forth neither bi-theism nor modalism, neither the epiphany of an angel nor the emanation of a lesser heavenly power.[7] Rather, the Word’s human existence witnesses to a figure who in the course of the narrative is equal to God (5:18; 10:33-34), one with God (10:30), mutually interpenetrates him (10:38; 14:8-11, 20; 17:11, 21-23), who is worshipped beside God the Father (5:23), and who shares in God’s eternity, glory, love, judgment, and deliverance (4:42; 5:22, 27, 30; 8:58; 12:47; 17:24, 26).[8] The relationship of the Word with God is never expressed as creation, emanation, or adoption, but in terms of begotten-ness (1:14, 18; 3:16, 18), the genus of sonship, which makes explicable the one-ness and sent-ness (8:29; 10:36; 17:20-23) as well as one-ness and subordination (13:16-20; 14:28).[9] The Word is neither a separate deity, nor a personified divine attribute, nor a mighty angel, but a personal agent within the one God, the divine Son.[10]

Third, God’s own Word enters into human existence and draws God into the experience of human life. At one level, there is nothing in vv. 1-5 that a Hellenistic Jew like Philo or the author of the Wisdom of Solomon would find remotely objectionable. That God’s creative Word or Wisdom was involved in creation is a legitimate reading of Gen 1:1 in light of Ps 33:6 or Prov 8:22-3. All is good until one gets to vv. 14, 18 and re-reads vv. 1-5 in light of John’s provocative christological claims made therein. Jewish tradition could say that God’s wisdom came forth or God’s word was revealed, but never that they became flesh; this takes us beyond the range of Jewish ideas of divine speech-acts, wisdom’s immanence, and the word’s efficacy.[11] What would be startling is the particularity (v. 14) and exclusivity (v. 18) of the christology, i.e., God’s divine Logos has become a human being who reveals God in a way that surpasses Moses, the prophets, and the sages. The language of Jn 1:14 riffs off Jewish wisdom tradition to make a striking claim about Jesus as God’s Word in human flesh: “And the Word became flesh and lived [lit. “tabernacled”] among us [kai ho logos sarx egeneto kai eskēvōsen en hēmin], and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth”. It is notable that the metaphor of the body as a “tent” (skēvos) was known to Jewish and Christian tradition (Wis 9:15; 2 Cor 5:4; Ep. Diogn. 6.8; 2 Pet 1.13, 14). The tabernacling language too is significant as it is allusive to: (a) the tabernacle as the place for divine speech (Exod 33:9) and the presence of divine glory (Exod 40:34); (b) The prophetic promise that God would tabernacle among his people during Israel’s restoration from exile (Ezek 37:27; Joel 3:17; Zech 2:14-15 [LXX]; Jub. 1.17; 11QTa 29.7-8); and (c) Wisdom coming forth from God and pitching her tent in Israel in the form of the Torah (Sir 24:1-23).[12] Thus, the tabernacling of the Logos is the dwelling of God’s speech, wisdom, and glory in the human life of Jesus, which is simultaneously the engrafting of humanity into the life of God.

Fourth, the Word shares in what made God unique as creator. Beyond the surprising idea that the Word is identifiable with Jesus the son of Joseph from Nazareth (1:45; 4:5; 6:42), equally striking is John’s assertion that Jesus the Logos shares in the creator-creature division that separates God from the cosmic order. John declares that God makes himself known in the Logos enfleshed in the very cosmos that God brought into being through this very same Logos (1:1-3, 10, 14, 18). The Logos might even a cryptograph for the divine name, suggested by usage in Jub. 36.7, which mentions “the name … which created the heavens and the earth and all things together.”[13] The implication is that Jesus the Logos is on the God-side of the creator-creature distinction. The Word is divine in the sense of being the uncreated instrument of creation.[14] This is expressed in the statement that “apart from him nothing came into being” (1:3) which underscores a lack of superior, inferior, and parallel figures who assisted in the creative act – it is God who creates by his Word alone.[15] The same language, “apart from him is nothing done” is attributed to YHWH in 1QS 11.11 and this language of “apart from him” was to have salient significance in proto-orthodox and gnostic cosmologies to distance the Logos from other intermediary figures.[16] Bauckham offer a sagacious summary: “The opening five verses of John’s Prologue, therefore, read in light of the later statement in 1:14 that the Word became flesh and lived among us as Jesus Christ, include Jesus is the unique divine identity by identifying him with the Word that was with God in the beginning and was God’s agent in the creation of all things.” Resultantly: “The statements place Jesus unequivocally on the divine side of the absolute distinction between the one Creator and all other things. By identifying Jesus with an entity intrinsic to the divine identity – that is, with God’s Word – they include Jesus in that identity without infringing monotheism. The Word ‘was with God,’ but it was not another besides God – for it ‘was God’ (1:1).” Bauckham concludes: “Thus, the Gospel begins by engaging with one of the most important ways in which Jews defined the uniqueness of the one God – that is, as the sole Creator  of all things – and uses this way of understanding the unique identity of God in order to include Jesus within it.”[17] John’s Logos is “God” and shares in a key attribute that makes God unique, namely, not part of the heavenly cast or terrestrial creation.[18]

The Johannine prologue, then, functions like an operatic overture, a foreshadowing of the musical motifs still to come: Jesus as God’s word-of-revelation, only-begotten Son, light, life, testimony, truth, knowledge, glory, and even his rejection. Jesus is God’s wisdom and word, demiurge and deliverer, made one with human flesh.

[1] See Jan Van der Watt, R. Alan Culpepper, and Udo Schnelle (eds.), The Prologue of the Gospel of John: Its Literary, Theological, and Philosophical Contexts (WUNT 259; Tubingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 2016); Paul Anderson, The Riddles of the Fourth Gospel (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011), 26-28.

[2] Cf. Thomas H. Tobin, “The Prologue of John in Hellenistic Jewish Speculation,” CBQ 52 (1990): 252-69; Hengel, Son of God, 73; Dunn, Christology in the Making, 213-14; Frey, “Jewish Monotheism and Proto-Trinitarian Relations,” 207.

[3] Schnelle, “Philosophische Interpretation des Johannesevangeliums,” 179-80: “Johannes … drückt er einen universaln Anspurch aus: Der Logos Jesus Christus ist aus der ursprünglichen Einheit mit Gott hervorgegangen, er ist Gottes schöpferische Kraft, er ist der Ursprung und das Ziel allen Seins, und im Logos Jesus Christus findet die antike Religions- und Geistesgeschichte ihr Ziel.”

[4] See esp. Robert H. Gundry, Jesus the Word according to John the Sectarian: A Paleofundamentalist Manifesto for Contemporary Evangelicalism, especially Its Elites, in North America (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 1-50. Cullmann (Christology, 259) wrote: “The word of Jesus – the word he preached – plays such an important part in the whole Gospel of John that one can hardly assume the evangelist did not think also of this ‘word’ when in the prologue he identified Jesus himself as the Logos. …[H]e brings the word, because he is the Word.” Craig S. Keener (The Gospel of John [2 vols.; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010], 1:334) notes: “The Logos theme actually does pervade the Fourth Gospel, if it is understood as portraying Jesus as the embodiment of Torah … a theme presented in a variety of images throughout the Gospel.” Also, Dodd, Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, 265-67; Bultmann, John, 83; Adele; Reinhartz, “‘And the Word Was God’: John’s Christology and Jesus’s Discourse in Jewish Context,” in Reading the Gospel of John’s Christology as Jewish Messianism, eds. Benjamin Reynolds and Gabriele Boccaccini (AJEC 106; Leiden: Brill, 2018), 77-78.

[5] Bultmann, John, 34-35. But note Grillmeier’s qualification (Christ in Christian Tradition, 1:28): “Essential as the idea of the revealer is for the Logos, it does not exhaust it.”

[6] Cullmann, Christology, 265: “The Logos is the self-revealing, self-giving God – God in action” (266).

[7] Contra Collins & Collins, King and Messiah, 181. See, rather, Bultmann, John, 32-33.

[8] Hengel (Son of God, 73) comments: “The christological climaxes of the Fourth Gospel, like 1.1: ‘… and the Word was with God and the Word was God’, or 10.30: ‘I and the Father are one’, mark the goal and consummation of New Testament christology.” Aloys Grillmeier (Christ in Christian Tradition, 1:26) is similar: “The climax in the New Testament development of christological thought is reached in John. His prologue to the Fourth Gospel is the most penetrating description of the career Jesus Christ that has been written. It was not without reason that the christological formula of John 1:14 could increasingly become the most influential New Testament text in the history of dogma.”

[9] Bousset (Kyrios Christolos, 215) noted that in John: “the concepts ‘Sonship to God’ and ‘deity’ move very close together.” Grillmeier (Christ in Christian Tradition, 1:28) observed: “True, the two concetps Logos and Son are not to be equated formally. But in fact logos, theos, monogenēs at least imply the one and the same subject who is to be understood as pre-existent, beyond time and beyond the world.”

[10] According to Grillmeier (Christ in Christian Tradition, 1:28): “The Logos is God in God, mediator of creation and bringer of revelation – and this in the full sense by virtue of his appearance in the flesh. He ‘is’ the Word of God in the flesh.”

[11] Dodd, Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, 272-76.

[12] Cf. Craig R. Koester, The Dwelling of God: The Tabernacle in the Old Testament, Intertestamental Jewish Literature, and the New Testament (Washington, D.C.: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1989), 102-4.

[13] Reinhartz, “‘And the Word was God,’” 80.

[14] Boccaccini, “From Jewish Prophet to Jewish God,” 351-52.

[15] On God having no assistants in creation, see Isa 44:24; 2 Enoch 33.4; 4 Ezra 3.4; Josephus, Apion 2.192.

[16] See e.g. Od. Sol. 16.19; Kerygma Petrou 2; Gos. Truth 37.21; PtF 33.3.6; Justin, 2 Apol. 6.9; Tatian, Or. 19; Athenagoras, Legat. 4.2; 6.2; 10.2; Theophilus, Autol. 2.10; Irenaeus, AH 3.11.1-2; 3.21.10; Dem. 43; Ep. Diogn. 7.2; Origen, Comm. Joh. 2.8. The theme of all things by God, without of him nothing is done, is common in ancient hymnic literature, see Eduard Norden, Agnostos Theos: Untersuchungen zur Formengeschichte religiöser Rede (Leipzig: Teubner, 1923), 157-69, 349-50.

[17] Richard Bauckham, “Monotheism and Christology in the Gospel of John,” in Contours of Christology in the New Testament, ed. Richard N. Longenecker (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 151.

[18] Cf. too Frey, “Between Jewish Monotheism and Proto-Trinitarian Relations,” 209.

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