Review of Bart Ehrman’s book ‘How Jesus Became God’ (part 10 – Johannine Prologue)

In today’s review of Ehrman’s new book on christology, I will examine his arguments regarding the Johannine Prologue (John 1:1-18). One of Ehrman’s primary theses is that the Synoptic Gospels have a low christology while the Fourth Gospel as, in his words, “an extremely high Christology.” One gets the sense that Ehrman is trying to push the Synoptics and the Fourth Gospel in mutually exclusive directions based on how it (key word) might be interpreted. He shoots off a catena of proof texts from the Fourth Gospel in order to make his point. This may have the affect of overwhelming the unsuspecting reader, but I will attempt in this post to look closely at his arguments, in particular, regarding John 1:1-18.

Logos-is-the-greek-word-for-reason-or-for-wordOn page 273 Ehrman claims that the Johannine Prologue describes Christ as “a preexistent divine being–the Word–who has become human.” He goes on to remark that the “Logos in Greek–was sometimes understood to be a divine hypostasis, as aspect of God that came to be thought as its own distinct being…separate and distinct.” I will come right out and state that I think that this is a gross misreading of the evidence, particularly, the Jewish background regarding the Logos/Wisdom of God. One only has to look at the texts which almost certainly influenced the writer of the Fourth Gospel in order to get a sense of what he means when he uses the Logos in his Prologue. Consider the following passages:

 Yet these things You have concealed in Your heart; I know that this is with You. (Job 10:13)

For He performs what is appointed for me, And many such decrees are with Him. (Job 23:14)

What is with the Almighty I will not conceal. (Job 27:11)

We note here that in the book of Job, one of the more poetic parts of the Hebrew Bible, God’s decrees are “with Him.” This is very similar to John 1:1 where the Word was with God. Job is best understood as saying that, when God’s decrees are “with Him”, that his plans are in his mind and a part of his divine purpose. Other passages say a similar thing:

My son, if you will receive my words and treasure my commandments within you. (Prov. 2:1)

Proverbs, another highly poetic book in the Hebrew Bible, likewise speaks of words being within a person. They are decrees and commandments which are treasured within someone. Certainly this language is not to be taken literally, as if words literally exist inside of a person’s body.

And Wisdom is with you, who knows your works (Wisd. of Sol. 9:9)

All wisdom is from the Lord and is with Him forever. (Sirach 1:1)

The intertestamental literature, which are both full of poetry, follow the lead of the wisdom material located in the Hebrew Bible by describing God’s wisdom as being with God. This is not saying that wisdom, although highly personified, is an actual female figure alongside God. Rather, this is a metaphorical way of expression God’s wise intentions and interactions with His people, i.e., God acting wisely with creation.

So when we get to John 1:1 where the Logos was with God, I contend that these parallel passages should be given more weight in the interpretive process. The Logos, which is certainly personified in the fullest extent in the Prologue, was with God in the same way that God’s plans, decrees, and wisdom were with Him.  This suggests that the Logos is not a separate person alongside God, but rather a way of talking about God’s utterance which is certainly involved in creation. Consider the following passages and ask yourself whether they speak of a separate entity alongside God or not:

By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and by the breath of His mouth all their host. (Ps. 33:6)

To Him who made the heavens with understanding. (Ps. 136:5)

The LORD by wisdom founded the earth, by understanding He established the heavens. By His knowledge the deeps were broken up. (Prov. 3:19-20 cf. 24:3-4)

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. (1 QS 11:11, tr. Garcia Martinez)

By the knowledge of the Lord they were distinguished, and he appointed the different seasons and festivals. (Sirach. 33:8, my translation)

O God of my ancestors and Lord of mercy, who have made all things by your word. (Wisd. of Sol. 9:1)

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. (Jubilees 12:4)

Wisdom being his mother, through whom the universe arrived at creation. (Philo, Fug. 109)

Wisdom, by means of which the universe was brought to completion. (Philo, Det. Pot. 54)

In these passages, all from within poetical wisdom literature. God creates things with his word/wisdom. This is a way of portraying God has having a powerful word, a word which speaks things into creation. It also portrays God as acting wisely within his creation, using his own wisdom in the ordering of the cosmos. James D. G. Dunn’s assessment of the evidence is striking:

“Prior to v.14 we are in the same realm as pre-Christian talk of Wisdom and Logos, the same language and ideas that we find in the Wisdom tradition and in Philo, where, as we have seen, we are dealing with personifications rather than persons, personified actions of God rather than individual divine beings as such. The point is obscured by the fact that we have to translate the masculine Logos as ‘he’ throughout the poem. But if we   translated logos as ‘God’s utterance’ instead, it would become clearer that the poem did not necessarily intend the Logos in vv.1-13 to be thought of as a personal being. In other words, the revolutionary significance of v.14 may well be that it marks not only the transition in the thought of the poem from preexistence to incarnation, but also the transition from impersonal personification to actual person.” –Christology in the Making, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996) 243, emphasis his.

What must be stated here, with emphasis, is that the word (Logos) and wisdom in these passages are not separate divine beings or hypostases alongside God. That would be to take the poetical writings and read them too literally and woodenly. And this, I contend, is what Ehrman (among others) has done with John 1. He sees the Logos and argues, implicitly, that this must be read literally rather than within the discourse of poetic wisdom literature wherein God’s word and wisdom is personified in acts of creation. A personification is not the same things as a distinct person. When Psalm 85:10-11 personifies righteousness and peace, are we to think that the psalmist is regarding them as hypostates or distinct persons? Or when the arm of YHWH is personified in Isa. 51:9 and described in feminine terms, is that arm now a distinct person alongside YHWH? Or maybe when repentance is personified in Jos. and Asenath 15:7-8 we should add him to the divine court of beings. Not likely, I suggest.

John 1 is best read as the personified Logos, which is active in creation and fully expressive of God, eventually becomes embodied in the human Jesus. Therefore Jesus speaks the very words of God (one of the primary motifs in the Fourth Gospel). He is God’s mouthpiece. If the Logos is properly understood in light of all the wisdom literature cited above, then John 1:1-18 does not indicate that Jesus literally existed as a preexistent being, as Ehrman argues.


20 thoughts on “Review of Bart Ehrman’s book ‘How Jesus Became God’ (part 10 – Johannine Prologue)

  1. Hi
    I very much appreciated your paper.!
    Just two points….
    “The word was WITH God…”
    The Greek word used to denote ‘with’ is ‘para’

    See Thaylers Greek Lexicon.

    “With the dative ‘para’ indicates that something is done, either in the immediate vicinity of someone, or, metaphorically , in his mind.”

    References Winers Grammar 48d p. 394f (369) Buttman 339 (291f).

    JWs will argue this one and say that Thaylers is ‘mistaken’. They,of course would have one believe that Christ was an Angel who preexisted with God from the beginning. They even have an incomprehensible (to me)
    explanation to Hebrews 1 v1 !!

    You are quite correct about the grammar !
    Until the publication of the Douay Rheims Bible in 1582, most Bibles recorded “IT was with God in the beginning”
    Tyndale Bible 1534
    Great Bible 1539
    Geneva Bible 1560
    Bishops Bible 1568

    THis is easily verified by using a search engine.

    Keep up the good work!!
    Every Blessing

      1. Par
        You are absolutely correct – for which I unreservedly apologise !
        There are two words ‘para’ and ‘pros’ which can be interpreted to mean ‘with’. Both are of course prepositions.

        I was somewhat lazy and selected the word ‘para’ used in John 17v5
        “….the glory I had WITH you before the world began”- before examining the text of John 1v1.

        I’m sure that like me you often wondered how it was possible for someone to ‘be’ and at the same time’ be with’ the same person?
        The obvious solution is that the ‘logos’ is not a person.

        The Greek syntax for John 1.1.3. indicates that ‘the logos’ is the subject-making it likely that the anarthrous ‘theos’ is a ‘quality’ or ‘attribute’ of God.

        My own view is that ‘logos’ is equivalent to ‘Word Wisdom’ -but I could be wrong!

        Once again sorry for the slip,!!
        Every Blessing

  2. A quote I found interesting.
    The big question is why is it so hard to accept that “word” might mean “word”, or “one” means “one” or “begotten” means “begotten”…God did choose his words. One might consider that he knew the common meanings without the church having to interpret complex theology into them.

  3. This is a very well-supported case for reading Jn 1:1 in light of Jewish wisdom literature both biblical and extra-biblical. I couldn’t agree more with your conclusion that John 1:1-18 is not saying Jesus was literally a preexistent being.

    The Philo citations are the only question mark for me. On the one hand, he clearly personifies wisdom in a manner similar to the Old Testament. But on the other hand, his view of the “logos” appears to lean more toward a conscious and incorporeal soul (a la Plato’s World-Soul in Timaeus) than personification:

    “And even if there be not as yet any one who is worthy to be called a son of God, nevertheless let him labour earnestly to be adorned according to his first-born word, the eldest of his angels, as the great archangel of many names; for he is called, the authority, and the name of God, and the Word, and man according to God’s image, and he who sees Israel.” (On the Confusion of Tongues, XXVIII)

  4. Sarah,
    There is a belief that John was very thoughtful ‘ regarding his use of words.

    He understood that while the majority of his readers would have been familiar with the Jewish “Word’ and ‘Wisdom’ literature – another group would have been aware- and accepting of the Platonic reasoning which existed in certain circles.
    Some commentators have suggested that John selected his words very carefully to as to be meaningful to both sides.

    Does that make sense to you?

    John B

    1. John,
      Excellent point! While his words would have had a familiar ring to Philo’s devotees, John never suggested that Jesus pre-existed as an angel/soul as Philo did before him and Justin Martyr after him. And of course 1 Jn 1:1-2 provides further confirmation that he viewed the word as a “what” rather than a “who.”

      1. Sarah,
        Your comment on 1 John 1 -2 is most apposite.
        I have just picked up a similar thought in the ‘Notes to 1 John’ in the NAB Bible!
        “There is a striking parallel to the Gospel of John (John 1 v1-18)
        but the emphasis is not on the preexistent word but rather the apostles ‘witness to the incarnation of life by their experience of the historical Jesus…..”


  5. Dustin,

    There are other NT scholars than just James Dunn. He seems to be your main and sometimes only source in many of your posts.


      1. Dustin
        I’d be interested to hear how the supporters of the pre-existence of Christ deal with verses like Hebrews 1 v 1
        “In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets. In these last days He has spoken to us through a Son…”

        John B

      2. As in since when did Dunn change his position that John’s Gospel does not assume literal pre-existence/ incarnation christology?

  6. I just read pages 31-32 in the 2nd addition introduction of ‘Christology in the making’ and its seems Dunn is emphasing trinitarianism orthodoxy can be further supported/clarified with careful application of his methodology he contextually applies regarding text exegesis of the NT text?

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