December 8: John 1:1a

John 1:1-18

Recent notes have dealt with the New Testament “Christ hymns” —the famous hymns of Philippians 2:6-11 and Colossians 1:15-20, as well as the shorter hymnic statements in 1 Tim 3:16; Rom 1:3-4; Heb 1:2b-4, and 1 Peter 3:22. The notes for the remainder of Advent and Christmas season will be devoted to the Prologue of the Gospel of John (1:1-18). Many scholars would regard this passage as another Christ-hymn. Certainly it represents a powerful confessional statement on the person of Jesus Christ, and possesses a certain poetic rhythm and style that could be characterized as hymn-like. There are definite parallels, in thought and language, with the Philippians and Colossians hymns (the latter, in particular), as well as the statement in Heb 1:2-4. Moreover, it shares with these passages a definite pre-existence Christology—perhaps the strongest and most developed such Christology in all the New Testament.

Many of the critical questions related to the other “Christ hymns” apply to the Johannine Prologue as well. In particular, there is the fundamental question of whether the “hymn” in Jn 1:1-18 is an original composition by the Gospel writer, or whether it was adapted (by the author) from an earlier hymn. Probably the strongest evidence in favor of adaptation are the references to John the Baptist in verses 6ff and 15. These references depart from the poetry of the Prologue, and are clearly secondary in terms of the content and style of the remaining lines. To test this theory, all one need do is leave out vv. 6-9 and 15 and then see how vv. 1-5, 10-14, 16 read as a unified poem. Some commentators would include other portions (e.g., verses 12b-13, 17-18) as secondary additions to the core of an original hymn.

In my view, the best explanation of the evidence is that the Gospel writer has, in fact, adapted (in some fashion) an existing Johannine Christ-hymn. The term “Johannine” signifies the groups or congregations of believers, over a particular territory, which produced (and distributed) the Gospel and Letters of John. Tradition identifies this territory as Asia Minor, centered in the region around Ephesus. That there were Christ-hymns, along the lines of Jn 1:1-18, in use among believers in Asia Minor in the late-1st century A.D., is confirmed by Pliny’s letter to Trajan (10.96.7, cf. Eusebius’ Church History 5.28.5). That letter refers to Christians in Bithynia who would recite “a hymn to Christ as to a God”, which suggests the possibility of a pre-existence Christology, and content similar to the Johannine Prologue, or to the Colossians hymn, for example. Cf. Brown, p. 20.

The references in the Prologue to John the Baptist (vv. 6-8, 15) serve to unite the Christ-hymn with the opening sections of the Gospel narrative, which focus on the Baptist (vv. 19-51). Indeed, the opening chapters of the Gospel (1-3) develop the important theme of the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus, in terms of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah (and Son of God). This theme is woven into the Prologue through the Baptist ‘additions’. It is harder to determine whether the confessional elements in vv. 12-13 and 17-18 represent similar additions, or are integral to the hymn; they certainly reflect the central Johannine theology.

John 1:1

“In (the) beginning was the Word, and the Word was toward God, and the Word was God.”

The opening verse of the Prologue (and first line of the hymn) is one of the best-known in the New Testament. This familiarity, however, belies the profound challenges involved in a precise interpretation (and translation) of the verse. It is comprised of three short clauses, in sequence, governed by an initial prepositional phrase (“in the beginning…”). We will examine each of these clauses in turn.

Verse 1a

e)n a)rxh=| h@n o( lo/go$
“In (the) beginning was the Word”

There are three elements to this statement:

1. e)n arxh=| (“in [the] beginning”). The parallel with the opening word of Genesis 1:1 is obvious, with e)n a)rxh=| being the Greek (LXX) translation of Hebrew tyv!r@B=. The reference is thus to the beginning of creation, and, by implication, to the period before God’s act of creation begins. It also alludes to the Genesis account, and the description in that account of the means/manner by which God created the universe.

2. h@n (“was”). An imperfect active indicative form of the common verb of being (ei)mi). It occurs in each of three clauses of verse 1; more to the point, this verb form is used repeatedly throughout the Prologue, and with a special theological significance. This will be discussed further in the upcoming notes.

3. o( lo/go$ (“the word”). The noun lo/go$ (lógos) also occurs in each of the clauses of verse 1, as the subject. It occurs again in verse 14, and, despite being used in just these two verses of the Prologue, it is clear that the term is fundamental to the Christ hymn. The noun is important for the Gospel as a whole, and for the Johannine theology; however, I would argue that its usage here in the Gospel (cp. 1 John 1:1) reflects a very specific influence, drawn from Old Testament and Jewish tradition. Because of the importance of this subject for a correct understanding of the Prologue, it will be discussed in some detail in the next daily note.

References marked “Brown” above (and throughout these notes) are to R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 29 (1966).




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