“And Wisdom Became Flesh” – How the Gospel of John depicts Jesus as the incarnation of Lady Wisdom

Having already noted the theology in both Proverbs and Sirach which depicts the personified Lady Wisdom as embodied in human figures (i.e., the ideal wife and Simon the High Priest), I have observed the same trend within the Gospel of John. In fact, the connections between Jewish literature describing Lady Wisdom and Jesus within John are far greater in number than the connections in Proverbs and Sirach (and I might not have even found all of them).

The primary conclusion of this evidence suggests that if the Gospel of John repeatedly depicted Jesus Christ as the embodiment and incarnation of Lady Wisdom, which itself is a personification rather than a literal person alongside Yahweh, then this is a strong indicator that the Fourth Gospel is not thinking in terms of Jesus consciously existing prior to his birth. Furthermore, if Logos and Wisdom were understood as synonymous terms (as Wis 9:1-2 suggests), then the theology of Jesus as the incarnation of Lady Wisdom needs to be read in conjunction with the prologue (John 1:1-18).

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Incarnational Theology within the Book of Sirach (i.e., How Lady Wisdom Became Flesh in the High Priest Simon)

As a follow up to last week’s video on the Incarnation of Lady Wisdom in the Ideal Woman of Proverbs 31, I have set forth data which I feel points to the conclusion that the Book of Sirach also depicts a human being as the embodiment of God’s personified wise interaction with creation. In short, Sirach 24 offers a picture of Lady Wisdom in rich poetry, and that poetry is used later in the same book to describe the historical High Priest Simon, using the same Greek words in the process! Furthermore, I note how the language of Sirach was picked up by the Prologue of John in order to depict Jesus in the same terms and theology. Since Lady Wisdom is a clear personification (rather than a actual person alongside Yahweh), then this example in Sirach sheds some much needed light on how John 1:1-14 should be responsibly interpreted.

Let me know what you think in the comments below.

 

 

Book Review (part 19: The Christology of the Gospel of John) – ‘Neither Jew nor Greek’ by James D.G. Dunn

John-AugustIt cannot go without saying that the apostle John’s lasting influence for the development of Christianity was utterly significant, despite his seemingly minor role depicted within the Gospel narratives. In this nineteenth post of my recap/review of James Dunn’s newest volume Neither Jew nor Greek I will sketch out the argument which depicts what many feel is the most controversial christology in the New Testament Gospels and how it affected the developing Jesus traditions within the second century CE (sections 49.1-3). Indeed, Dunn admits that the role of ‘John’ proved to be one of the most powerful influences in the making of Christianity, particularly when compared to James, Paul, and Peter.

The discussion begins by noting that the Gospel of John can surely be traced back to Jesus’ mission, notably to eyewitness and ear-witness testimony. John was able to draw upon personal knowledge of such features as the initial mission of John the Baptist, the early recruitment of the Baptist’s disciples, and the Judaean mission. These are traditions which possess a high degree of historicity which the Synoptics evangelists, who understandably wanted to mark the distinction between the Baptist and Jesus rather than the overlap, chose not to employ. For Dunn, the Gospel of John utilizes traditions which were authentic rather than legendary in character.

Mislabeling-the-Word-of-GodThe ‘Jewishness’ of John is subsequently argued at length. Dunn notes that the claim in John 20:31, “that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God,” is central to the claim of John’s Gospel. Jesus’ messiahship was rooted in the Jewish expectation of the messiah and built upon distinctive Jewish themes. The title ‘Son of God’ culminated from the typical commissioning of a prophet and the ‘Son of Man’ was reminiscent of Jewish reflections of the human figure in Dan. 7:13-14. Furthermore, the portrayal of Jesus in terms of Wisdom and Word was used with language which would resonate meaningfully and favorably in Jewish ears. On this point Dunn cites John Ashton who observes that Jesus’ claims “are made from within the Jewish tradition and cannot be explained in any other way.” All of these points indicate that there exists within the Gospel of John a sustained strategy to present Jesus as the one who fulfilled Israel’s hopes which surpassed the alternatives like Moses, the Torah, and the prophet.

Unfortunately, John’s evangelistic strategy was not very successful in winning his fellow Jews. Many of the Jewish authorities in his region had put believers in Jesus out of the synagogues. John had hoped that there would be persons similar to Nicodemus (John 3) and the blind man (John 9) who believed secretly and needed to step out in faith and confess their belief. Dunn rightly points out that the dispute between John’s use of Logos theology and Judaism is a dispute, in effect, is still not finally resolved. However, since John was firmly rooted in the Judaism of his time, he “would have denied that he was ignoring or breaching the boundaries which defined Israel’s heritage” (p. 762).

John is to be viewed, in a sense, as a distinctive contributor. The methodological reminder to ‘Let John be John’ is stated from the beginning as a reminder to approach John on his own terms (despite the evidence that it intends to be in continuity with Jewish theology). Four particular subheadings are given: The Incarnate Word, The Son Sent and the Son of Man Descended, The Revealer, and John’s Christology in Gnostic Perspective.

 

1. The Incarnate Word

Dunn begins this section by declaring that it is not enough to point out the Wisdom and Logos language upon which John drew. What needs to be insisted upon is that the Logos/Wisdom had ‘become flesh.’ In order to drive home his point, Dunn contrasts this assertion from what he regards are less-qualified answers to the significance of John 1:14. For the Logos/Wisdom was not:

  • simply manifest in poetic metaphor to describe divine action;
  • as symbolized in the character of Israel’s heroes and heroines (as in Philo);
  • just as a casual visitor like an angelic character in human appearance.

Rather, the Logos/Wisdom became flesh, i.e., a human being who had lived a full life from birth to death. Although John regards the Logos as having been with God from the beginning and which was God (John 1:1) he did not attempt to downplay what the Logos had become: “that which is born of flesh is flesh” (John 3:6). The ‘Logos becoming flesh’ is not predicated upon the  extrabiblical Prayer of Joseph, a work which Dunn notes is describing a way of glorifying Israel in the person of its eponymous patriarch (p. 765 n.29). While the later Gnostics attempted to explain the gap between the creator and the creation with a lengthy series of aeons John instead chose to bridge the gap with the single step of the ‘Word becoming flesh.’

 

2. The Son Sent and the Son of Man Descended

The incarnate Logos had become the Son of God, a son who is the Father’s only begotten son (1:14). John 1:18 furthermore indicates that this only-begotten one, who is in the Father’s close embrace, has made him known. This, for Dunn, indicates that the incarnate Word is a revelatory figure of the Father. In other words, ‘Son of God’ in John is not simply a person who is favored by God, but is the one who acted as the Father’s plenipotentiary in the fullest sense. For Dunn, the repeated assertion that the Son has descended from heaven is an indicator of a commissioning (cf. John the Baptist being sent from God – John 1:6). Therefore, the verses describing ‘descending’ and ‘ascending’ (3:13; 6:62) seems to be directed against the characterization of the patriarch and prophets as those who in effect ascended into heaven to hear what God said. The opening of heavenly reality gives an opportunity for Jesus to communicate to those on earth who are ready to receive it.

 

3. The Revealer

Dunn notes that which had already been observed by Bultman that in John’s Gospel Jesus is the revealer, “but all that he reveals is that he is the revealer!” For John Jesus has revealed God, the Son has revealed the Father, and the uttered Word has revealed the one who uttered the word. In all of this, Dunn rightly reminds us that,

Jesus as the incarnate Word and Wisdom fulfills that role previously filled in Second Temple reflection on Word and Wisdom — not least their role as revealers (p. 768).

The Fourth Gospel presents the theme that Jesus is the closely-related revealer of the Father (in the fullest sense of the words):

  • No one has seen God, but Jesus has made God known (1:18);
  • “Whoever sees me seed him who sent me” (12:45)
  • “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (14:9)
  • Jesus and the Father are one (10:30)

Dunn note the corollaries with the statuses of such figures as Moses and Mohammed, but insists that Jesus as the one who fully reveals God is at the heart of John’s Gospel. Along the same lines, Dunn makes sure that his readers are still ‘Letting John be John’ by remarking that,

it should not be assumed that in his talk of the Son’s dependence of the Father (as in 5.19), John was already caught up in the later debates about the relationships of the two persons of the Trinity, the Father and the Son (p. 768).

This insistence was a needed stress in light of many readers of John reading post-biblical ideas back into the Fourth Gospel’s distinctively Jewish presentation of Jesus as the revelatory expression of God’s Logos/Wisdom.

 

4. John’s Christology in Gnostic Perspective

In a stroke of bad luck, the presentation of Jesus as the Son sent from the Father had striking parallels with the later Gnostic Redeemer myth. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls helped scholars in the twentieth century to observe that the dualism of light and darkness in the Gospel of John possessed contemporary Jewish parallels rather than owing its origin to a so-called pre-Christian Gnostic Redeemer myth. Nevertheless, John was well on its way to being portrayed in Gnostic terms, as confirmed by its popularity with the Valentinians. Many of the Nag Hammadi documents were strongly influenced by John’s Gospel (and its distinctive prologue).

However, Dunn rightly points out that the Valentinian exegesis of John, expressed by Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Hippolytus, recoils from taking seriously the Logos ‘becoming flesh.’ “Rather they bring to their reading of the prologue the assumption that the divine realm is much more complex than Jewish monotheism allowed…” After citing many of the specific examples of Gnostic interpretations, Dunn concludes that Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria were right to claim that the Gnostics abused John’s Gospel.

 

cross_mosaicIn his concluding thoughts Dunn traces the trajectory of the Johannine writings on into the second century, noting that its christology provided “the basis for the Logos christology which the Apologists took up in their own philosophical way” (p. 799). Two of the big take-aways from Dunn’s sustained argument are that: (1) John needs to be properly situated in its Jewish context (with all the attached messianic expectations), and (2) the christology of John began to be abused and confused from an early period in the second century. It is not altogether surprising how these two points are related to each other.

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Book Review (part 17: How the Gospel of John Contributed to the Parting of the Ways) – ‘Neither Jew nor Greek’ by James D.G. Dunn

In the seventeenth post regarding my recap/review of James Dunn’s newest volume Neither Jew nor Greek  I will draw out a particularly fascinating discussion on how the Fourth Gospel contributed (and in what sense) to the ‘Parting of the Ways’ between Judaism and Christianity (section 46).

The-Breakup_0Dunn outlines this chapter by first discussing how the terms ‘Judaism’ and ‘Christianity are unhelpful terms because they are not defined and distinguished entities during this period of inquiry. He moves on to note some of the early strains between the followers of Jesus and their Jewish counterparts, such as the death of the Messiah, the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Jesus, and the lynching of Stephen in Acts 7. Furthermore, Rome’s involvement certainly caused ripples between the two groups with the destruction of the temple (70 CE), the fiscus Judaicus, and the revolts in 115-117 and 132-135 CE. During this time Judaism was being refined with the slow emergence of Rabbinic Judaism and the fading away of other sects (Essenes, Sadducees, etc.).  Four NT documents (Matthew, Acts, John, and Hebrews) are likewise examined to see in what sense do they depict the conflicts between Jews and early Christians. Finally, Dunn notes the writings of the second century Apologists, Church Fathers, and others to observe how the tone has changed during their time periods. This entire chapter is a gold mine of excellent historical data and should be required reading for Church History students (who rarely get exposed to the developments between the first and second centuries CE).

I will now move to interacting with Dunn’s section on how the Gospel of John contributed to the ‘Parting of the Ways’ between what eventually came to be known as Judaism and Christianity. The section (46.5c) notes how the GJohn apparently goes out of its way to argue how traditional Jewish icons are now passé in light of the coming of Christ (temple to body, purification water into wine, Jacob’s well into living water, manna from heaven to bread of life, etc.). These themes seem to indicate that GJohn invites its readers (especially the Jews of its time) to see Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes and visions.

It is in GJohn that ‘the Jews’ are the designated antagonists, regularly hostile to Jesus. In John 8:39-44 Jesus defines them as “children of the devil” rather than children of Abraham. This sharply distinguishes ‘the Jews’ from Jesus and his followers (who are also Jewish). It seems, after a closer examination, that ‘the Jews’ most likely refers to the Jewish authorities, in contrast to even the neutral crowds and common folk observing the dialogues of Jesus and his opponents.

IMG_1352Of particular interest is the phrase coined by GJohn aposynagogos, “expelled from the synagogue.” In John 9:22 the parents of the blind man refuse to stand up for their own son in fear of ‘the Jews’ who threatened to put out of the synagogue anyone who confessed Jesus as Messiah. The next reference is in 12:42 where many of the rulers believed in Jesus, but did not publicly confess him for fear of the Pharisees, lest they be put out of the synagogue. The third and final reference is in 16:2 where Jesus warns that his disciples should expect to be kicked out of the synagogue. It has been common in Gospel of John scholarship to suggest that the blessing against the heretics (known as the birat ha-minim) had already been pronounced by the post-70 rabbinical authorities and that this pronouncement in synagogues explains the social situation exhibited in John 9:22; 12:42; and 16:2. Dunn argues that this suggestion is problematic and unable to be sustained historically principally because the reference to the Christians within this blessing  was likely a later addition. Dunn concludes, nevertheless, that the three references to synagogue-expulsion indicate that the pressures towards the parting of the ways was instigated on the side of Judaism rather than Christians.

The other relevant feature in GJohn is the objection on the side of Judaism that claims being made of Jesus by his followers were a threat to God’s unity. Dunn cites John 5:18 (‘the Jews’ seek to kill Jesus because he was calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God) and 10:30-31 (‘the Jews’ pick up stones to stone Jesus in response to the statement, “I and the Father are one”). In the Synoptic Gospels there appears to be no fierce reaction from the Jewish authorities quite like John 5:18 and 10:31. Dunn notes that the question of why these claims about Jesus were not made prior to the year 70 CE has not been sufficiently asked. The solution seems to be that John’s understanding of Jesus is best explained through the lens of God sending an authorized agent who bears the name and privileges of God himself.  Or, in the words of Dunn,

…much of John’s christology can be best seen in the context of late Second Temple Jewish reflection on divine epiphanies and divine agency.

Dunn goes on to note some of the particular christological points in GJohn. Of interest are these bullet points:

  • The Wisdom/Logos christology of John 1:1-18 is essentially a part of the Wisdom theology of Lady Wisdom traditions exhibited in Prov. 8; Sirach 24; and Baruch 3-4. Philo’s Logos theology is also influential;
  • John 3:13 seems to be a direct rebuttal of other Jewish claims to heavenly journeys and apocalyptic visions (only Jesus is the designated revealer of God);
  • The Son of Man ascending/descending in 3:13 and 6:62 is an extension of reflection on Dan. 7:13-14, a reflection in which 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra also were taking part;
  • The motif of Jesus as the one whom God “sent” sounds like the theme of God sending a prophet, but transcends both the prophet and the kingly figures;
  • The “I am” statements and other claims like John 8:58 “would not ring oddly to anyone familiar with the ‘I’ claims of Wisdom.”

John’s christology was not foreign to the Judaism of the period, argues Dunn. It seems that it was the claim that Jesus was God’s authorized agent, likened to God’s Wisdom, which was the factor provoking the post-70 CE rabbis to regard these Christ-followers as heretics (the minim). Dunn notes that the Gospel of John did not finalize this split, pointing to the second-century christological controversies which continued to bring definition to Christianity and Judaism which were both attempting to define each other over and against the other.

In sum, the Gospel of John indicates that the rabbis expelling Christians from the synagogue in a disagreement as to whether Jesus really was God’s authorized and empowered Messiah, and that the Johannine community indicates that this schism was well under way at the end of the first century CE.

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Book Review (part 13: The Christology of John’s Prologue) – ‘Neither Jew nor Greek’ by James D.G. Dunn

the-born-of-jesus-christ-art-2We have finally arrived to what many readers have been eagerly expecting. In this post I will summarize Dunn’s reading of John’s Prologue in regard to its christological contribution (as argued in his newest volume Neither Jew nor Greek). I figured today is as good a day as any to discuss logos theology. Much of what Dunn articulates in this section (ch. 43.1) is an expansion of his explanation in his Christology in the MakingI was pleased that he was able to gather further evidence to clarify and expand upon his initial argument.

Dunn begins by noting that ‘the word of God’ within the minds of religious Jews would have called to mind a variety of nuances. It would have drawn attention to the creative word used in the Genesis creation (Gen. 1:3, 6-7, etc.). The Psalmist picks this up and expressed it in Ps. 33:6. This very word also accomplishes all that God purposes according to Isa. 55:11. In the mind of Greeks the logos denotes the divine reasons permeating the created order. It also was an achievable measure of ‘reason’ to which each person could assent. With this in mind, Dunn correctly notes how both Jews and Greeks would have initially understood the first few verses of John 1:

when John continued, ‘The logos was with God and was God, both sets of listeners would find this unexceptional. For the logos was God’s own thought and utterance. And John’s further claim that ‘All things came into being through (the logos)’ would similarly accord with the presuppositions of most of his audiences.

For Dunn, the logos is not a preexistent Son of God, but rather the very utterance of God with all of its creative and reasonable echoes.

When it comes to John 1:18 Dunn argues that the theme that ‘Jesus reveals the God whom no one has seen’ is further observed in the Father-Son statements like, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (14:9; cf. 8:19 and 12:45). In other words,

Jesus is the self-expression of God.

Additionally, the disputed textual part of John 1:18 regarding the “unique God/Son” is given a lengthy footnote where C.K. Barrett stated in his commentary on John that although monogenes means ‘only of its kind’ when paired with the relationship of the Father then it can hardly mean anything other than only begotten son (and one who is begotten is one who has come into existence).

Dunn’s argument continues by insisting that the Johannine prologue could be more accurately described as Wisdom christology. He cites these parallels and echoes upon which the prologue drew:

  • 1:1 – Wisd. 9:9; Prov. 8:23, 27, 30
  • 1:3 – Prov. 3:19
  • 1:4 – Prov. 8:35; Bar. 4:2
  • 1:5 –  Wisd. 7:29-30
  • 1:11 – Wisd. 9:10; Bar. 3:37; 1 Enoch 42:2
  • 1:14 – Sir. 24:8

To further demonstrate the link between the poetic word and wisdom, Dunn cites Wisd. 9:1-2, “O God…who made all things by your word and by your wisdom you founded humankind.” Furthermore, it is noted that in Jesus,

the creative, revelatory, redemptive Word had come to humankind, that the divine Wisdom had made God known…

The depiction of Jesus as the embodiment of wisdom is not limited to the prologue, as Dunn notes the links between poetic passages describing lady Wisdom (in Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Baruch, Proverbs, and Job) and many other passages in John’s Gospel. In particular, he sees Jesus as the fulfillment of a variety of wisdom sayings in John 1:38-39; 2:6-10; 3:13; 3:16-17; 4:10, 14; 6:30-58; 7:25-36; 8:12-30; 8:58; 10:1-18; 11:17-44; 12:44-50.

Finally, Dunn takes a swipe at those who read the christology of John through the lens of Nicea. This quote deserves to be cited in full,

It is only when the early church’s Logos christology is supplanted by the Son christology of Nicaea, and the Son christology becomes detached from the Logos christology that the issue of personal relationships within the Godhead arises and talk of ‘subordination’ becomes necessary to maintain balance within the by then much-refined monotheism of the Fathers.

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Defining Jewish Preexistence – 2 Baruch 4:1-6

templeThis is another installment of my continuing study regarding how Jews understood the concept of ‘preexistence.’ In today’s post we will be examining a passage within the pseudepigraphal document known as 2 Baruch. This work was penned after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in the year 70 CE, with one of its key themes being an attempt to wrestle with the problem of why God allowed for the Romans to triumph over the Jewish house of worship. Scholars are fairly unanimous in dating this document to either the end of the 1st century or the beginning of the second century CE.

In the fourth chapter the unknown author describes a dialogue between God and Baruch. It is necessary that I quote the passage in full (verses are given in parentheses):

(1) And the Lord said to me: “This city will be delivered up for a time, and the people will be chastened for a time, and the world will not be forgotten.”

(2) Or do you think that this is the city of which I said: “On the palms of my hands I have carved you?”

(3) It is not this building that is in your midst now; it is that which will be revealed, with me, that was already prepared from the moment that I decided to create Paradise. And I showed it to Adam before he sinned. But when he transgressed the commandment, it was taken away from him–as also Paradise.

(4) After these things I showed  it to my servant Abraham in the night between the portions of the victims.

(5) And again I showed it also to Moses on Mount Sinai when I showed him the likeness of the tabernacle and all its vessels.

(6) Behold, now it is preserved with me–as also Paradise.

There are a lot of interesting things which I could say about this passage. However, since my inquiry regards Jewish preexistence, I will limit myself to the points which shed light on the study at hand.

First of all, it should be pointed out that the Jewish temple was “already prepared (4:3)” from the time when God created Paradise (i.e., from the foundation of the world). I have noted in previous installments of this study that the temple was often spoken of as having preexisted within God’s plans and purposes (Gen. Rabbah 1:4; b.Pes. 54a; b.Ned. 39b). In those studies it was concluded that this manner of preexistence was not literal, that is, where the temple structure physically existed in space and time up in heaven. Rather, those texts described this magnificent building, which is of no small importance to Jewish theology, as already planned within God’s mind. The author of 2 Baruch seems to be saying the same thing here. In 4:5 the author additionally notes that this building was shown to Moses along with the the “likeness” of the tabernacle and the accompanying vessels (which were eventually crafted and built later). It should also be noted that 2 Baruch predates both Genesis Rabbah and the Babylonian Talmud references.

Secondly, the language used the prepared temple is that of it being “with me,” used twice in this passage (4:3; 6). This is extremely fascinating, especially in light of the Prologue of John’s Gospel where the personified Logos is spoken of having been “with God” in the beginning (John 1:1b). Since the temple seems to only be preexisting as a concept rather than as a literal structure, the meaning of it being “with God” further suggests that it is a part of God’s plans and purposes. Similar uses of such concepts being “with God” can be observed in Job 10:13; 23:14; 27:11; Prov. 2:1; Wis. 9:9; Sirach 1:1. I suggest that the close proximity of the dating of John’s Gospel with the dating of 2 Baruch strongly allows for the interpretive overlap of these themes.

In sum, it seems that the document of 2 Baruch demonstrates that Jews spoke of the important things of Jewish theology as having been prepared beforehand in God’s purposes, even going so far as to say that they were with him. This further contributes to my working hypothesis that ‘preexistence’ within Jewish modes of discourse was conceptual and ideal, rather than literal.

This certainly has consequences for the interpretation of such ‘preexistence’ passages as John 1:1; 8:58; and 17:5.

 

Making Sense of John 1:18 – “God” or “Son?”

My friend Dan Gill recorded and edited a short video discussion involving myself in which we talked about the finer details of the textual variant in John 1:18. I think it turned out really well. Interestingly enough, on this point Bart Ehrman and I are actually in agreement (see his discussion in The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, 78-82). See also Urban C. von Wahlde’s three volume contribution on The Gospel and Letters of John in the Eerdmans Critical Commentary series (2:16).

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.

Preexistence or rank? (John 1:15, 30)

John testified about Him and cried out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.'”  John 1:15 (cf. 1:30)

 

The phrase translated as “existing before” is protos mou (πρῶτός μου). It is grammatically ambiguous, referring to either:   

                        a. prior in time

                        b. higher in superiority

John 1:15 (1:30) could equally be translated: He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He was my superior. The same goes to John 1:30 where the phrase reappears. The        Greek protos is similarly used in 1 Tim. 1:15 where Paul claims to be the “foremost” of all the sinners Jesus came to save. 

In short, John 1:15 is an ambiguous text which can be made to refer to preexistence or to preeminence, depending on your presuppositions. 

Jesus as the embodiment of the Logos (John 1:14)

John 1.14 is one of the climactic exclamation points within the prologue. It is at this juncture that the personified Wisdom/logos becomes flesh and ‘tabernacles’ among humanity (Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν). Consider the following parallels with Moses and the Torah:

He (Moses) became the embodiment of the Law and also the logical divine foreknowledge. (Philo, De Moses 1.162 [αὐτὸς ἐγίνετο νόμος ἔμψυχός τε καὶ λογικὸς θεία προνοίᾳ])

 

So at once the king (Moses) is indeed the Law’s embodiment. (Philo, De Moses 2.4 [ὡς εὐθὺς εἶναι τὸν μὲν βασιλέα νόμον ἔμψυχον])

Important quote by James D. G. Dunn:

“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.

The Logos, Targums, “…and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

Many have been confused how, in John 1:1, the Word can be with God (1:1b) and the Word can be God (1:1c). I have argued in a previous post my interpretation of John 1:1b, where I give an abundance of evidence indicating that that clause has nothing to do with Jesus being with the Father prior to his birth. In regard to John 1:1c (…and the Word was God), I suggest that a fresh look at the Jewish Targums associated with the “word” (Hebrew: ‘davar’, Aramaic: ‘memra’) helps clarify this obscure passage at the beginning of John’s Gospel. For those who are not familiar with what a targum is, see the helpful (I can’t believe I am about to give this link) article on wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Targum).

 

Now for the Targum evidence relating to John 1:1c:

Gen. 1:3 – “Let there be light, and there was light”

“…there was light according to the decree of the Word.” Targum Neofiti

 

Gen. 1:7, 9, 11, 15, 24, 30 – “…and it was so.”

“…and it was so according to his Word.” Targum Neofiti

 

Gen. 3:1 – “Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made.”

“….which the Word of the LORD had made.” Targum Neofiti margin

 

Gen. 3:8 – “And they heard the sound of the LORD God…”

“….And they heard the sound of the Word (memra)…” Palestinian Targum

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Gen. 3:10 – “He said, I heard the sound of You….”

“…the sound of the Word” Targum Neofiti

 

Gen. 14:19 – “…Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth.”

“…who by his Word created the heaven and earth.” Targum Neofiti

 

Gen 15:6 – “Then he believed in the LORD and it was reckoned…”

“He believed in the Word of the LORD.” Targum Onqelos

“He had faith in the Word of the LORD.” Tagrum Pseudo Jonathan

 “Abram believed in the name of the Word of the LORD.” Targum Neofiti

 

Exod. 6:7 – “Then I will take you for My people and I will be your God…”

“…I will be to them my Word, a redeemer God…” Targum Neofiti

 

Exod. 19:17 – “And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God…”

“…to meet the Word of God.” Targum Onqelos

 

Exod. 20:11 – “For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth…”

“the Word of the LORD perfected” Targum Neofiti marginal gloss, similar comment found in Exod. 31:17

 

Exod. 25:22 – “There I will meet with you…”

“There I will appoint my Word…” Targum Neofiti, Pseudo Jonathan, and Onqelos

 

Exod. 29:45 – “I will dwell among the sons of Israel and will be their God.”

“…and I will be to them, in my Word, a redeemer God.” Targum Neofiti

 

Exod. 33:22 – “…and cover you with My hand until I have passed by.”

“…I will shield you with my Word…” Targum Onqelos

 

Lev. 1:1 – “Then the LORD called to Moses and spoke to him…”

“The Word of the LORD called to Moses and the Word of the LORD spoke to him…” Targum Pseudo Jonathan

 

 

Lev. 11:45 – “…from the land of Egypt to be your God…”

“to be, in my Word, your redeemer God.” Targum Neofiti margin

 

Lev. 22:33 – “…from the land of Egypt to be your God…”

“to be, in my Word, your redeemer God.” Targum Neofiti

 

Lev. 25:38 – “I am the LORD your God…”

“I am, in my Word, the LORD your God” Targum Neofiti

 

Lev. 26:12 – “I will also walk among you and be your God…”

“…and be, in my Word, your God.” Targum Neofiti

 

Lev. 26:45 – “…in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God.”

“I might be, in my Word, their God.” Targum Neofiti

 

Num. 6:27 – “So they shall invoke My name on the sons of Israel…”

“So they shall put my name, my Word, upon the sons of Israel.” Targum Neofiti

 

Num. 7:89 – “…between the two cherubim, so He spoke to him.”

“…the Word spoke to him.” Targum Neofiti and Pseudo Jonathan

 

Num. 14:22 – “…and have not listened to My voice,”

“and have not received my Word.” Targum Onqelos and Pseudo Jonathan

 

Num. 15:41 – “I am the LORD your God…”

“I am, in my Word, the LORD your God.” Targum Neofiti margin

 

Num. 17:4 – “…in front of the testimony, where I meet with you.”

“The Word meets you.” Targum Neofiti, Pseudo Jonathan, and Onqelos

 

Deut. 4:24 – “the LORD your God is a consuming fire…”

“the LORD your God, his Word, is a consuming fire.” Targum Onqelos

 

Deut.  26:17 – “You have today declared the LORD to be your God…”

“…declared the LORD to be, in my Word, your God.” Targum Neofiti

 

Deut. 32:15 – “But Jeshrun grew fat and kicked, You are grown fat, thick and sleek, Then he forsook God who made him…”

“…forsook the Word of God who/which made him” Targum Neofiti

 

Deut. 32:18 – “…and forgot the God who gave you birth.”

“and forgot the Word of God who/which made them.” Targum Neofiti

 

Psalm 106:25 – “…they did not listen to the voice of the LORD.”

“they did not receive the Word of the LORD.” Targum on the Psalms

 

Isa. 44:24 – “…I, the LORD, am maker of all things, stretching out the heavens by Myself…”

“I stretched out the heavens through my Word” Targum on Isaiah

 

 

Isa. 45:12 – “It is I who made the earth…”

“I, by my Word, made the earth” Targum on Isaiah

 

Isa. 48:13 – “Surely My hand founded the earth…”

“By my Word I founded the earth.” Targum on Isaiah

 

Isa. 63:5 – “…So My own arm brought salvation to Me, and My wrath upheld Me.”

“…by the Word of my pleasure I helped them.” Targum on Isaiah

 

Jer. 27:5 – “I have made the earth…”

“I, by my Word, made the earth” Targum on Jeremiah

 

In short, God’s creative word (logos) is a reflection of himself, which became embodied in the human Jesus (John 1:14). One can properly speak of the preexistence of God’s creative word, but not of the son of God. Jesus began to exist in the womb of Mary, where he was begotten (Matt. 1:18, 20; Luke 1:35; John 3:16; Gal. 4:4; 1 John 5:18).

“and the Logos was with God” (John 1:1b)

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John 1:1b states that “the Logos was with God.” Since the Logos is best understood as God’s creative utterance, one needs to attempt to get at what the author was trying to convey with this statement which places this very word with the one God. I have attempted to demonstrate in my previous post (see below) that the Johannine Prologue needs to be understood within its poetic framework, thereby taking seriously the metaphoric themes, such as the personification of God’s attributes. Consider the following parallels with John 1:1b,

Yet these things You have concealed in Your heart; I know that this is within You. (Job   10:13, not in the NIV)

 

For He performs what is appointed for me, And many such decrees are with Him. (Job 23:14, also not in the NIV)

 

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

 

But if they are prophets, and if the word of the LORD is with them, let them now entreat the LORD of hosts (Jer. 27:18)

 

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. (Ecclus. 1:1)

It seems, therefore, that to indicate in a poetic context that one’s word is with God has nothing to do with a separate pre-existent person being in the presence of God. Rather, it more likely suggests that God’s creative utterance is near to him, in his midst, or close by. Stay tuned for further installments on the Johannine Prologue. 

 

 

Structural Analysis of John 1:1-18

There seem to be a lot of confusing attempts to get at what the author of the Fourth Gospel intended to be understood by his Prologue. Some wish to focus on the first three verses while adding v. 14 on top like the icing on the cake. Others lock horns in wrangling over what the original reading is in v.18 (god or son). 

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I always impress upon my students the need to recognize what kind of document are you reading before engaging in exegesis. Based upon the structure below, it seems that the Prologue is strategically arranged in a poetic chiasm. This should come as no surprise to those who are familiar with other depictions of the personified Wisdom, such as in Prov. 8 and Wis. of Sol. 9, where poetry and metaphor abound. Consider the following:

 

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 god/son with God – v. 18

 

It is interesting that the center of the chiasm is not v.14 (“and the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us”), but rather the statement of how humans might become children of God in 1:12b.

In my view, two important conclusions can be drawn from such analysis. First, since the passage is arranged in both poetic style and chiasmic structure, the reader should avoid woodenly literal readings of the Prologue’s contents. Rather, a more nuanced and poetic interpretation might better get at what the author was attempting to convey to his readers. One should not be surprised when the Logos, God’s creative utterance, is personified with masculine pronouns, just as readers are not shocked when chokmah (Wisdom) is poetically given feminine pronouns in Prov. 8. 

Secondly, the climax of the Prologue seems to be on 1:12b, where the two segments of the chiasm come together. Since the focus seems to be on how humans might become God’s children, the reader should be alerted to this theme in further readings of the Gospel (and where the Father and Son fit in this process).   

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.