An Interview with James McGrath (part 4)

This is the fourth installment of my recent interview with James McGrath.


Dustin: We have textual variants which we, honestly, do not know for certain which goes back to the original pen of the author, such as John 1:18. Now I learned Greek with a modern pronunciation, so when I say μονογενὴς θεὸς I hope you can understand what I am trying to convey. Anyway, this verse has the well-known variant which seems to either be μονογενὴς θεὸς, “uniquely begotten God,” or μονογενὴς υἱὸς, “uniquely begotten son.” We are all taught in textual criticism to go for the more difficult reading. I am thinking here, however, if it originally was μονογενὴς υἱὸς, like the other characteristic Johannine constructions in John 3:16, 18, etc., then I could see a reason why scribes would want to tamper with the noun ‘son’ and change it to a more exalted title ‘God.’ I can certainly see that as a possibility. I can also make an argument that μονογενὴς θεὸς was the more difficult reading and scribes had a tendency to make the difficult things conform to the more traditional lines, such as in John 3:16. Yet some of the manuscripts with the ‘God’ variant are focused in a particular geographical area, suggesting a localized change, perhaps. I do wonder what in the world “the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father” actually means. If that was the real reading, what is John trying to convey to his original readers? That is the closest thing to two gods that you could get. I also wonder if in the word μονογενὴς, “only begotten.” has a sense of the act of creation, perhaps the uniquely-created God/son. Is this a distant acknowledgement to the virgin birth tradition which is independently attested in Matthew and Luke? 

JM: I have seen a strong linguistic case and of course there is a blurring of the distinction in modern English because ancients were not always consistent in their spelling. So the same is true with ancient Greek. They way it is spelled, it does seem to not come from ‘genao’ but from ‘genos,’ “one of a kind, unique” rather than “only begotten.” Although the term has resonances with the Abraham story [Gen. 22] but there too only begotten doesn’t fit Isaac. “Unique, special, or one of a kind” works better there.

Even so, “one of a kind God who is the bosom of the Father” would be very puzzling. I think a bigger question is, who is being referred to in that way? Can we figure out why the terminology is being used? What would it have meant? My own view, which may or may not be right, is that there is this parallel between the opening and the closing of the prologue.

Dustin: I know you can build a chiasm with the eighteen verses there.

JM: Yes. Is there entire thing about the human being Jesus? Is there a transition from the preexistent word to the human person Jesus, and if so, where? Is it chronological or do things jump around. If it is telling a story in a way that flows with a chronology, them presumably the ending is the Jesus exalted and at the Father’s right hand. And so, the author may be using this parallel to justify that, answering how can Jesus have that status. It is because he is the incarnation of the word.

But what does it mean to call Jesus “God?” There is this whole history with Philo calling Moses “God to Pharaoh.” There was certainly a broader use of calling people “god” in the ancient world.

Dustin: Absolutely.

JM: So whether it is “only begotten” or “one of a kind” or “one of a kind God” or even “one of a kind (comma) God,” it is not clear that we can sort those out grammatically. It really comes down to what we think the author meant. And to answer those questions we need to dive into the whole thing and attempt to situate the prologue into that. Either way, the author is basically tracing the story that leads up the exaltation of Jesus by connecting it with the pivotal moment of the prologue when the word became flesh. We do need to reflect more on the relationship between the preexistent word with the human being Jesus.

Dustin: I would again like to take a stab at that, if you don’t mind. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the prologue over the years. You have “in the beginning was the word” with its resonances with the Septuagint of Gen. 1:1. This evokes images of God speaking, vayomer elohim, and bring creation into being with his creative speech. John takes this up with the personified Logos, which is translated as a “him.” It could be translated “it” but if the Logos is a personified noun then perhaps John intended it to be a personified “him” in the same way that we have traditions with personified Sophia/wisdom as a “she” in Proverbs 8 and Wisdom of Solomon 6. In Sirach 24 we see that God’s Torah comes and tabernacles among the people. John is arguably drawing upon all of these strands within the cultural milieu, which unfortunately people who pick up the Gospel of John today aren’t aware of.

JM: Yeah.

Dustin: Unfortunately, the ignorance at this point on the part of modern readers, whether willingly or unwillingly, means that we aren’t quite in the same mindset that John was. So God’s personified speech creates things, it has life, etc. Now when I speak, my heart is coming across to you. So when God speaks, his words are a reflection of his inner being, his own self. So when John 1:1c says kai theos en o logos, it is not exactly equating 1:1 God and the Logos. Emphatically, it is kai theos.

JM: Yes.

Dustin: At this point, theos without the article can be adjectival. Some translations use “divine,” or “what God was, the word was.” So God’s Logos is fully expressive of God. That is my best translation at this point.

JM: [nods] Mmmhmm.   

Dustin: And then God’s creative word gets embodied in the human Jesus. Now some people think that this is the first time this has even been said in literature. However, Philo has two instances where he describes Moses as the “en-soul-ment” of Torah. Well then John goes on to say that the Law came through Moses but grace and truth came through Jesus. If Moses is the embodiment of the law then Jesus is the embodiment of God’s creative utterance. And the rest of the Gospel has Jesus saying pretty much nothing but “the words that I speak, they are eternal life, they aren’t my own words, but rather they came from God himself, I’m not speaking of myself, I’m only speaking of what God says.” That is basically the summary of John’s Gospel.

JM: Yeah. Another really important study is C. K. Barrett’s piece which asks if John is christo-centric of theo-centric. He has this great memorable line which really gets at something that is easy to miss. Before I get to that, let me come and respond. You made a really good point that we don’t have the first century Jewish context. There is a sense in which we have, at the same time, assumptions which we are lacking from the first century as well as assumptions we bring to the text from a whole history of debates about christology which first century people didn’t have! So we might both have ignorance and extra baggage! This is worth mentioning. We lack some things that the author assumes and we have assumptions from a history of christological debates which the author wouldn’t assume.

Now coming back to Barrett, he says something along the lines of:

“it is simply intolerable to have Jesus saying ‘I am Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, and as such I do as I’m told.'”          


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