The Birth of Jesus in the Johannine Writings

The third Day of Christmas (Dec 27) coincides with the holy day (feast) of St. John the Evangelist—this is John the Apostle who is traditionally regarded as author of the Gospel that came to bear his name. The Gospel of John does not contain an Infancy narrative (as in Matthew 1-2, Luke 1-2), but begins with the ministry of John the Baptist (as in Mark 1:2ff), to which is joined the marvelous Prologue (John 1:1-18). By an interesting circumstance, however, a number of scribes and theologians in the 2nd century came to understand John 1:13 as a reference to the (virgin) birth of Jesus. Here is the (accepted) Greek text of vv. 12-13, with a literal translation:

o%soi de\ e&labon au)to/n e&dwken au)toi=$ e)cousi/an te/kna qeou= gene/sqai toi=$ pisteu/ousin ei)$ to\ o&noma au)tou= oi^ ou)k e)c ai(ma/twn ou)de\ e)k qelh/mato$ sarko\$ ou)de\ e)k qelh/mato$ a)ndro\$ a)ll’ e)k qeou= e)gennh/qhsan
12but as many (as) received him, to them he gave exousia to become tekna of God—(to) the (ones) trusting into his name, 13the (ones) who, not out of blood [pl.] and not out of the will of flesh, and not out of the will of man, but out of God have come to be (born)

e)cousi/a (exousia) is difficult to render into English literally; it carries the basic meaning of ability to do something, either in the sense of power or permission; often it is translated “authority” or “power”. te/knon (teknon) is also a bit difficult to translate—literally it indicates something brought forth [i.e. often something “born”]; typically the plural (te/kna) is rendered “children”.

This is the reading of all surviving Greek MSS (and virtually all other witnesses). However, at least one Old Latin MS (b), and a few Church Fathers, read the singular relative pronoun and verb in verse 13. To see the difference, look at the two versions side by side (in more conventional translation):

but as many as received him, to them he gave authority to become children of God—to those trusting in his name, they [i.e. believers] who were born not by blood nor by the will of flesh nor by the will of man, but by God but as many as received him, to them he gave authority to become children of God—to those trusting in his name, he [i.e. Christ] who was born not by blood nor by the will of flesh nor by the will of man, but by God

The majority reading connects the relative pronoun back to “as many as…/children of God”; the variant reading, on the other hand, connects it to “his name”, making it refer very much to the birth of Jesus. For more on this variant reading, see the article on Jn 1:13 in the series “The Birth of the Son of God”.

It is interesting to consider the use of the closely related verbs gi/nomai and genna/w in the Gospel of John; both carry the general sense of “become, come to be”, but the latter especially means “come to be born” (passive) or “cause to be born [i.e. beget, bear]” (active). Noteworthy instances of genna/w are:

  • John 3:3-8 (8 times), part of the discourse with Nicodemus; note especially the phrases “born from above” (vv. 3, 7) and “born out of the Spirit” (vv. 5-6, 8)
  • John 8:41: the Jews disputing with Jesus claim to be “children” (te/kna) of Abraham (v. 39) and in answer to Jesus’ rebuke in vv. 39b-41a further state that they were not born “out of fornication” (e)k pornei/a$). Their coming-to-be born (genna/w) is contrasted with Jesus coming (e)rxomai) “out of God” (e)k tou= qeou=, v. 42).
  • John 16:21: Jesus likens the anguish of a man coming-to-be-born to the temporary sorrow of the disciples (in a little while they will see him again) (v. 22)
  • John 18:37: in answer to Pilate, Jesus declares his purpose: “unto this I came to be born {gennaw} and unto this I came {e)rxomai} into the world: that I should witness to the truth; every (one) that is out of [i.e. from] the truth (e)k th=$ a)lhqei/a$) hears my voice”

The verb gi/nomai is used a number of times in relation to the incarnation of Christ. Consider the usage in the Prologue (1:1-18):

  • It occurs 3 times in verse 3 (once again in v. 10), referring to creation (things made), and once in verse 6 (John the Baptist); contrast this with the use of ei)mi in vv. 1-10.
  • In verse 12: those who believe come-to-be {ginomai} children of God, parallel to coming-to-be-born {gennaw} out of God in v. 13 (see the discussion above)
  • Verse 14: “and the Word [lo/go$] came to be [i.e. became] flesh and set up tent [i.e. dwelt] in/among us…”—a central and dramatic reference to the Incarnation (to use the later Christological term)
  • Verse 15: John the Baptist’s testimony: “the (one) coming {e)rxomai} in back of [i.e. after] me came to be {ginomai} in front of me, because he is/was {ei)mi} first (for) [i.e. before] me”—this is a difficult statement; note carefully the three verbs used (a kind of step-parallelism)
  • Verse 17: the Law given {di/dwmi} through Moses is contrasted with “grace/favor and truth” which came-to-be {ginomai} through Jesus Christ

The First Johannine Epistle (1 John) is also traditionally ascribed to John the Apostle, and certainly is written in a language and style very similar to that of the Gospel. In particular the verb gennaw appears ten times, as follows:

  • 7 times in the phrase “born out of God [e)k tou= qeou=]” (1 Jn 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18), just as in John 1:13, as a locution for true believers in God (and Christ), though the second instance in 1 Jn 5:18 is not entirely clear (see below).
  • 2 more times in the phrase “born out of [i.e. from] Him [e)c au)tou=]” (1 John 2:29; 5:1) with the same meaning.
  • One other instance (also in 1 Jn 5:1) uses the active form to speak of God as the one who “caused to be born [i.e. begat]”, again in the same context.

The second occurrence of the phrase “born out of God” in 1 Jn 5:18 is a source of some textual and interpretive difficulty. The verse can be read two ways:

We know that every (one) that has come to be (born) out of God does not sin, but the (one) come to be (born) out of God [i.e. Christ] watches him [i.e. the believer] and the evil does not touch him We know that every (one) that has come to be (born) out of God does not sin, but the (one) come to be (born) out of God [i.e. the believer] watches him(self) and the evil does not touch him

A later scribal emendation reads, for the last half of the verse, “the coming-to-be-born [o( ge/nnhsi$, i.e. the {new} birth] watches him…”. But assuming that the form gennhqei/$ is correct, the textual issue hinges upon the pronoun—whether it is personal (au)ton) or reflexive (e(auton). The reflexive is the majority reading, but there is strong manuscript support as well (A* B 330 614 r vg syrh boh al) for the personal, and this is preferred by most commentators and textual critics today.

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