Reading John 1 with clarity.

     Before any significant studies can be done on the prologue of John’s Gospel, the nature and definition of the Logos must be sketched out. Logos is the Greek word translated as word, account, or statement. In the Greek Septuagint, it translates the Hebrew word davar, which shows up over 1400 times. It carries the same lexical range of meanings that its Greek counterpart does. One thing is abundantly clear when looking at how the Hebrew Bible, Septuagint, and the Greek New Testament use their respected phrases for “word” is that in not one of their occurrences does it denote a person in the sense that you or I am a person.

    While saying this, it is important to note that during the intertestamental period there was an increasing tendency for Jews to recognize the transcendence of the God whom they worshipped. In various places where the Hebrew Bible described the actions of God, the “word” was said in place. The Jewish Targums contain many of these examples:

           Ex. 19:17- Moses brought forth the people to meet with God

           Ex. 19:17 Targum- Moses brought forth the people to meet the word of God.

           Ex. 31:13- [the Sabbath] is a sign between Me and you.

           Ex. 31:13 Targum- is a sign between My word and you.

           Deut. 9:3- God is a consuming fire.

           Deut. 9:3 Targum- The word is a consuming fire.

           Isa. 48:13- By My hand I laid the foundation of the earth.

           Isa. 48:13 Targum- By my word I have founded the earth. 

It seems rather clear by the evidence that the Jews could use the “word of God” interchangeably with “God,” and yet still be faithful to the meanings they expressed in the Hebrew Bible. The Fourth Evangelist would have been very aware of the Targums from his upbringing in the synagogue where they were quite popular.

     Since God’s logos/davar, according to Genesis, is his creative speech, both wisdom literature and various texts from the Second Temple Period started describing the “word” in like manner. Since one’s word is formulated in the mind prior to speaking, the creative word is sometimes nuanced into “understanding,” “knowledge,” “wisdom,” and similar language. Note this phenomenon in these texts:

     By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and by the breath of His mouth all their host.[1]

     To Him who made the heavens with understanding.[2]

     The LORD by wisdom founded the earth, by understanding He established the heavens. By His knowledge the deeps were broken up.[3]

     By his knowledge everything shall come into existence, and all that does not exist he establishes with his calculations and nothing is done outside of him.[4]

     By the knowledge of the Lord they were distinguished, and he appointed the different seasons and festivals.[5]

     O God of my ancestors and Lord of mercy, who have made all things by your word.[6]

     Worship the God of heaven, who causes the rain and the dew to descend on the earth and does everything upon the earth, and has created everything by his word.[7]

     Wisdom being his mother, through whom the universe arrived at creation.[8]

     As we can see, the Jewish view of God’s word (logos) is that it is his speech in action, stemming from the plans of his mind. Just like an architect crafting up the designs for a new building project in his thinking, it will soon be put into fruition in his creative activity. This creative word is often personified but is never actually presented as a distinct person from God. James D. G. Dunn makes the comment that “Nowhere either in the Bible or in extra-canonical literature of the Jews is the word of God a personal agent or on its pay to become such.”[9]

     God’s plans, wisdom, and words are often spoken of in way that suggest that they are with him, closely bound to him, or in his mind. Harnack points out that “everything of real value that from time to time appears on earth has its existence in heaven…it exists with God, that is God possesses a knowledge of it.”[10] Various texts bring this fact to light:

     Yet these things You have concealed in Your heart; I know that this is with You[11]  

     For He performs what is appointed for me, and many such decrees are with Him[12]

     Wisdom is with you, she who knows your works and was present when you made the world[13]

     All wisdom is from the Lord, and with him it remains forever.[14]

There now seems to be enough evidence on the table to adequately approach the prologue of John’s Gospel. Now that we have an understanding of how Jews perceived, spoke of, and described God’s Logos, a quite different reading of the prologue is presented than the traditional reading most are familiar with.

     “In the beginning was the word (i.e. God’s creative spoken purpose) and the word was with God (just as we saw the word being with God in Job, Wisdom of Solomon, and Sirach above), and the word was God (since one’s words are an expression of themselves, it is not too far of a stretch, especially within poetry, to state that their word is an extensions of themselves[15]).” Knowing that this reading is quite controversial, I only present the lexical evidence, parallels of literature, and common sense for my historical reconstruction. John 1:3 would have the reading “all things were made through it”, similar to how the Jewish literature presented thus far quite often talked about creation being made through God’s creative word (not a person, but His word).[16]   This creative word, which housed the purpose and mind of God, was embodied in the human being Jesus in John 1:14 (“the word became flesh”). The implications of this reading are that, if the Jewish evidence of how the Logos was understood by Jews around the first century C.E. is taken seriously, then the Fourth Evangelist could not have presented the Logos as a person distinct from God. The Logos is God’s word, his creative mind and plan, and an extension of God’s very being.

Most who are unable to read the Greek fail to see that John 1:1-18 is in fact poetry. Allow this chiasm to make the point:

A  The word was with God – vv. 1-2

            B  Creation through word – v. 3

                        C  Received life – v. 4-5

                                    D  John the Baptist – vv. 6-8

                                                E  Response to incarnation – vv. 9-10

                                                            F  His own, i.e. Israel – v. 11

                                                                        G  accept the Logos – v. 12a

                                                                                    H  become children of God – v. 12b

                                                                        G1  believe the Logos – v. 12c

                                                            F1  His own, i.e. believers – v. 13

                                                E1  Response to incarnation – v. 14

                                    D1  John the Baptist – v. 15

                        C1  Received grace – v. 16

            B1  Grace and truth through Jesus – v. 17

A1  Only begotten son with God – v. 18

This is obviously the construction of a writer who is skilled in chiastic poetry.

Anyways, I’m sure a post like this will cause many to argue back, but hopefully readers will see that I tried to do my homework. =)


[1] Psalm 33:6.

[2] Psalm 136:5, my translation.

[3] Prov. 3:19-20. See also 24:3-4; “By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; and by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches.”

[4] 1Qs 11:11 tr. Garcia Martinez.

[5] Sirach 33:8, my translation.

[6] Wisdom 9:1

[7] Jubilees 12:4.

[8] Philo Fug. 109. See the almost identical passage in Philo Pot. 54.

[9] James D. G. Dunn , Christology in the Making, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980) 219.

[10] Adolf Harnack, History of Dogma, vol. 1 (New York: Dover, et 1961) 318.

[11] Job 10:13 my translation.

[12] Job 23:14.

[13] Wisdom 9:9.

[14] Sirach 1:1.

[15] Note what many scholars have stated on this very point:

“Now normally, except for special reasons, Greek nouns always have the definite article in front of them, and we can see here that ‘theos.’ the noun for ‘God’ [at John 1:1c], has not got the definite article in front of it. When a Greek noun has not got the article in front of it, it becomes rather a description rather than an identification, and has the character of an adjective rather than of a noun.” William Barclay, Many Witnesses, One Lord (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963) 23-4. “The closing words of v.1 should be translated, ‘the Logos was divine.’ Here the word theos has no article, thus giving the significance of an adjective.” Robert Strachan, The Fourth Gospel, Its Significance and Environment, 3rd ed. (London: Student Christian Movement Press, 1941) 99. “Since ‘God’ [theos] does not have the article preceding it [in clause c]. ‘God’ is clearly the predicate and ‘the Word’ is the subject. This means that ‘God’ [theos] is here the equivalent of an adjective.” Barclay Newman, A Translator’s Handbook on the Gospel of John (London: United Bible Societies, 1980) 8-9.

Each of these scholars are saying that the latter part of John 1:1 (“and the word was God”) should not be read as if the ‘word’ is being identified one-to-one with ‘God’ but rather using ‘God’ in an adjectival sense.  

[16] The Greek word for ‘him’(autos) as the passage is often translated, is in fact ambiguous and can certainly mean ‘it.’ In fact the first eight English translations of the Bible, such as the Bishops, Tyndale, Geneva, all used the word “it” instead of “him” in John 1:3.

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18 thoughts on “Reading John 1 with clarity.

  1. Logos is a theological concept that, within it, contains more than the dictionary definition from the TDNT or specific highlights from Targums. It cannot be reduced analytically. That being said: ” The implications of this reading are that, if the Jewish evidence of how the Logos was understood by Jews around the first century C.E. is taken seriously, then the Fourth Evangelist could not have presented the Logos as a person distinct from God. The Logos is God’s word, his creative mind and plan, and an extension of God’s very being.” is entirely correct. No proper theology of Incarnation or God ever makes a distinction or division between God and God’s expression in God’s Son.

  2. Thanks, Dustin. This was well thought-out and researched. This view of the Logos (as a concept that is part of God Himself) is something I’ve come to understand over the last couple of years, and I think it is the clearest and most solid explanation of John 1 that I know of. The layout of the poetry structure was also quite helpful.

  3. very, very interesting post. it’s amazing that john 1 – some of the simplest koine greek you can find – is so theologically rich and rewarding.

  4. Dustin – I think you are on the right track and you’ll find more confirmation in a book of mine Hendrickson has just published: The Jewish Targums and John’s Logos Theology

    1. Thanks for responding, John. I actually have your volume already, but have been busy with summer classes to get into it. I look forward to your insight and scholarship.

      Dustin

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  6. I have missed these, and I loved that you pointed out that it was poetry. Beautiful poetry, but poetry none the less. Thank you for another well-researched and thought out piece. It’ll give me more to consider and think about. 🙂

  7. What about Revelation 19:13, where “λογος” is a name specifically given to Christ (i.e. Christ is called the λογος)? It seems that it may be possible to interpret the prologue in John either as an abstract concept as you suggest, or as Christ himself existing with the Father at the beginning of the world.

    “He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God.” – Rev 19:3

    1. Correction:

      The verse at the end should say Rev. 19:13, as mentioned in the first paragraph.

      “He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God.” – Rev 19:13

      1. A couple of thoughts come to mind…

        1. The author of the 4th Gospel is not the same author as Revelation. The Greek style is just too different from one another. The majority of scholars agree with this.

        2. We need to be careful not to mix genres uncritically. John 1:1-18 is poetry while Revelation 19 is apocalyptic. There are different sets of interpretive lenses needed to read these works and they must be done in their proper contexts.

        3. The “word-concept” fallacy must be watched carefully to avoid misuse. It would be wrong to say that everytime logos is used that we substitute ‘Christ’ into it. Was that how Sirach thought? What about the authors of the Septuagint? Jesus, according to John 1:14, is what the logos became.

  8. 1) I agree that the two “Johns” are different authors

    2) So, how would you interpret the Rev. 19:13 passage “in context”? Is it not the case that Christ is being called the λογος in this passage?

    3) I agree with you to some degree, but I’m not suggesting that Christ be substituted for every instance of λογος. The word obviously has a broad range of definitions, as you have suggested in your blog post. I am simply saying that in some cases, such as Rev. 19:13, maybe the meaning goes further than “creative speech” and directly refers to Christ.

    1. 2. This is the same passage where two verses later a sharp sword comes out of his mouth. The imagery here suggests that Christ speaks powerful, authoritative, and ruling words. Thus, he can be called the Word of God. This is not the same thing as what John means when he uses logos in a more emphatic sense.

      How do you understand the genitive in “Word of God” in 19:13?

      3) I would argue that the “directly” adjective is in question, based on the apocalyptic imagery constantly used in Revelation. But, my original post was about John 1, not Revelation. Revelation’s Jesus is the one who died, the one who is distinct from the one on the throne, and who calls him “my God” 4x in one verse. The entire picture has to be examined, I suggest.

  9. 2) Based on my limited knowledge of Greek, I would have to guess that this is an attributive genitive, but maybe I’m misunderstanding the question. Isn’t θεου modifying λογος to show that the origination or the authority of the λογος is God?

    Maybe you can provide more detail here.

    3) Yes, I do realize that the post is about John 1. I am simply trying to gather more information about an instance where λογος appears to be used to describe Christ very directly (I know that you disagree with this based on your comment). I’m still not convinced that it’s acceptable to refer to Christ in some way (either directly or somewhat indirectly) in Revelation 19, but not in John 1.

    Even in John 1:14 – “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. ”

    What dwelt among us? I would have to say the λογος. “And we saw His glory” … What is ‘His’ referring to in the passage? We now have a personal pronoun being used to describe something and I would have to say it is describing λογος. Maybe it’s just me, but aren’t we taking something that is supposed to be simple and over complicating things?

  10. Fascinating post. I am truly amazed that John 1:1 is taught with a Hellenistic world view. Surely the scholars of theological schools must know what you have written, yet they are silent. Is truth in short supply? Who can you trust, if not those who are meant to be custodians and teachers of God’s word?

    I have a question concerning the personification of God. Jehovah’s witnesses argue that Proverbs 8 from verses 22-31 moves from personification to the literal. This is what their literature says:

    Since he is eternal and he has always been wise, then his wisdom has always existed; it never was created or produced; it was not “brought forth as with labor pains.” (Job 9:2, 4; 12:9, 13; 28:20, 23; Rom. 11:33-36) Wisdom does not exist apart from a personality capable of possessing and reflecting it. Consequently, this “Wisdom” must be a personification picturing someone who was created “as the beginning of [God’s] way.” – end quote.

    I would be interested in how you would reply to their assertion.

    1. Hey! Thanks for stopping by.

      Wisdom literature, like Proverbs (and Job for that matter) is abundantly and obviously poetic. The Book of Proverbs speaks of other personifications, such as “prudence,” “knowledge,” and “discretion” (8:12). Furthermore, lady Wisdom is set in synonymous parallelism with knowledge (2:10), upright paths (4:11), and even understanding (3:13; 9:10).

      If Wisdom is an actual person who became incarnate in Jesus, then why is Wisdom called a “she” throughout Proverbs (eg., 1:20; 3:13-18; 4:6-9)? Is Jesus a woman?

      This is a simple matter of basic genre identification. All regular newspaper readers know that editorial cartoons are not literal depictions of elephants and horses. Likewise, it would be foolish (to take a line from Proverbs) to read the massively poetic Wisdom literature with such a wooden literalism.

      Dustin

      1. What if you were to grant, just for the sake of argument, that parts of the NT do teach the real preexistence of Jesus Christ, and you came to accept that teaching as valid? Would that suggest to you that while Wisdom may have been presented poetically in the OT, our understanding would have to be reshaped by the NT’s teaching about the Son’s preexistence and his identification as God’s Wisdom?

  11. “Incarnation, in its full and proper sense, is not something directly presented in Scripture.” [1] The doctrine of the Incarnation was actually formulated during the next several centuries. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church verifies this fact:
    The doctrine, which took classical shape under the influence of the controversies of the 4th-5th centuries, was formally defined at the Council of Chalcedon of 451. It was largely molded by the diversity of tradition in the schools of Antioch and Alexandria…further refinements were added in the later Patristic and Medieval periods. [2]

    1. Dunn, op. cit., Christology in the Making, p. 4, quoting M. Wiles.
    2. F. L. Cross, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford University Press, N.Y., 1983), p. 696

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