December 16: John 1:3-4

John 1:3-4

The two clauses of verse 3 are clear and straightforward, both in terms of form and meaning. As discussed in the previous note, together they provide an emphatic declaration regard the role of the Logos in God’s creation of the universe:

“All (thing)s came to be through him,
and apart (from) him not even one thing came to be”

Difficulties arise, however, when we come to the last two words of verse 3 (as it is traditionally divided): o^ ge/gonen (“that which has come to be”)—a neuter relative pronoun followed by a perfect form of the verb of becoming (gi/nomai). Do these words belong with what precedes them (in v. 3), or with what follows (in v. 4)? Scholarly opinion is rather evenly divided on the matter, with some commentators (e.g., Metzger, pp. 167-8) preferring the former, and others (e.g., Brown, pp. 6-7) opting for the latter.

There are two principal arguments adduced in favor of reading o^ ge/gonen as part of v. 4:

    • It establishes a clearer (poetic) rhythm to the lines, and also preserves the so-called “staircase” parallelism that is said to be typical of Johannine style.
    • It seems to have been the view of the pre-Nicene Christian writers (who discuss the verse); a shift in favor of reading the words with v. 3, it is said, was prompted by a reaction against an Arian interpretation of the passage (when the words are read as part of v. 4).

I find the opposing arguments to be rather stronger (cf. Metzger, p. 168):

    • The Johannine predilection for beginning a sentence or clause with the preposition e)n + a demonstrative pronoun (e.g., Jn 13:35; 15:8; 16:26; 1 Jn 2:3-5; 3:10, 16, 19, 24; 4:2)
    • The theological parallels in 5:26, 39; 6:53, etc
    • The precise meaning of v. 4, when the words o^ ge/gonen are included, is, in the view of many commentators, rather obscure; on the other hand, the meaning of the verse, when the words are kept as part of the prior v. 3, seems quite clear, and requires no special pleading.

To illustrate the situation, let us compare the two approaches to handling vv. 3-4, in translation:

    • First—according to the traditional division (the words as part of v. 3):
      “All (thing)s came to be through him,
      and apart (from) him came to be
      not even one (thing) that has come to be.
      In him was life,
      and th(is) life was the light of men.”
    • Second—reading the words as part of v.4:
      “All (thing)s came to be through him,
      and apart (from) him not even one (thing) came to be.
      (That) which has come to be in him was life,
      and th(is) life was the light of men.”

Admittedly, there is a certain poetic consistency in the second option that the first lacks. However, this is a rather subjective assessment, and it presumes that the author—whether of the Prologue or an underlying hymn (or both)—intended such a consistency. Moreover, it ignores a different sort of balance that is achieved, with the first approach, when all three verses of the section (vv. 3-5) are included:

“All (thing)s came to be through him,
and apart (from) him came to be
not even one (thing) that has come to be.
In him was life,
and th(is) life was the light of men;
and the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not take it down.”

Note here how two triplets (three-line structures) surround a central declaration, balancing natural life (i.e., created existence) and eternal life.

But, perhaps most decisive against reading the words o^ ge/gonen as part of verse 4 is establishing exactly what the verse would then mean. For the sake of the argument, let us consider the possibility that this is the correct approach; verse 4 would then read:

“(That) which has come to be in him was life”
o^ ge/gonen e)n au)tw=| zwh\ h@n

At first glance, in the context of creation, we might assume that this statement means that the Logos gave (and still gives) life (i.e., existence) to all things. However, in the Johannine writings, the noun zwh/ essentially never refers to life in the ordinary (natural) sense, but, rather, to the life that God possesses—i.e., eternal life. Given this emphasis, the clause would have to be understood rather differently—as a contrast with ordinary creation. In other words, verse 3 refers to the role of the Logos in the creation of the universe (i.e., the first creation), while verse 4 focuses on the new creation of believers in Christ. According to this view, the phrase “that which has come to be in him” means those (believers) who are “in Christ”, those who were born into him “from above” (3:3-8, and cp. with vv. 12-13 in the Prologue), by the Spirit, as a ‘new creation’.

While this explanation certainly would concur with the Johannine theology, we must ask if it appropriate at this point in the Gospel Prologue. More to the point, does the wording of the statement, as given above, accurately and truly express this theology? We shall attempt to examine the matter in more detail in the next daily note.

References marked “Brown” are to Raymond E. Brown, S.S., The Gospel According to John I-XII, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 29 (1966).
Those marked “Metzger” are to Bruce M. Metzger in A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft/United Bible Societies: 1971, 1994).

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