Verse 10 marks the beginning of the third poetic unit (or strophe) in the Christ-hymn of the Johannine Prologue. The four units expound a Christological development from pre-existence (strophe 1) to incarnation (strophe 4). This third strophe provides the transition between the creation of the universe by the Logos (vv. 3-5) and the incarnation of the Logos in the life of Jesus (vv. 14-16).
“He was in the world,
and the world came to be through him,
and (yet) the world did not know him.”
These lines form a triad, a poetic triplet/tricolon, with three statements, each involving the relationship between the Logos and the “world” (ko/smo$). The noun ko/smo$ can refer to what we call the universe (cosmos), but it more properly signifies the arrangement of things in the universe, the order of creation; the translation “world-order” is generally accurate, if cumbersome. I have followed the customary rendering of ko/smo$ as “world”, since the English word has a comparable sort of semantic range.
The noun ko/smo$ is an especially distinctive part of the Johannine vocabulary. It occurs 78 times in the Gospel, and another 24 in the Letters—more than half of all the New Testament occurrences (185). Occasionally the word is used in the neutral sense of the universe, or, more precisely, the inhabited world (of human society). However, in the majority of instances, it has a decidedly negative meaning—referring to the world, in the current Age, as it is dominated by the forces of darkness and evil. There is a striking dualism that runs through the Johannine writings, contrasting the “world” (of darkness and evil) with the realm of God and the Spirit (of light and truth). Early Christians in the first century generally shared this worldview, often expressed within an eschatological framework—i.e., the current Age is becoming increasingly wicked, as the end draws near. Paul evinces a similar sort of dualism, emphasizing how the world in the current Age is in bondage to the power of sin. Even so, the specific Johannine dualism that depicts the “world” (ko/smo$) as fundamentally in opposition to God (and, by extension, to His Son Jesus and those who trust in him), defined largely as a contrast of “light vs darkness”, is distinctive.
Let us examine each of the statements of the contrast here in the Prologue, between the “world” and the Logos:
e)n tw=| ko/smw| h@n
“he was in the world”
This simple statement contains two components: the verb (a form of the verb of being) and a predicate prepositional expression (in emphatic [first] position). As previously noted, the verb of being (ei)mi) in the Prologue is reserved for God, and is only used of God the Father and the Logos (= Jesus the Son). Here it is the same imperfect active indicative form (h@n, “was”) that is used elsewhere in the Prologue. Thus the deceptively simple statement “he was in the world” implicitly contains a deeper theological meaning: the pre-existent Wisdom/Word of God was in the world. While this alludes to the earthly life of Jesus, it cannot be limited to that aspect (cf. below).
To say that the Logos was “in” (e)n) the world, is parallel with the idea that the divine/eternal Life was “in” (e)n) him (v. 4a). This Life is communicated to human beings (i.e., those in the world), v. 4b. The Life, under the image of light (i.e., the Light of God), is thus “in” (e)n) the world, under the negative aspect of the ko/smo$ (cf. above)—that is, in the midst of the darkness of the world (e)n th=| skoti/a|, v. 5). This personal presence of the Logos was foreshadowed in the closing words of verse 9, where the Logos is referred to as the “true Light” that is “coming into [ei)$] the world”.
kai\ o( ko/smo$ di’ au)tou= e)ge/neto
“and the world came to be through him”
According to the vocabulary of the Prologue, the verb of becoming (gi/nomai) is used for created beings (in contrast to the verb of being, used only of God). This re-states the declaration in verse 3: “all (thing)s came to be through him [di’ au)tou=]” —God created all things in the universe through the Logos (His Word/Wisdom). As applied to the person of Jesus, this same Wisdom tradition was utilized in the context of other Christ hymns (cf. Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2b-3). The point is emphasized here in order to make a stark contrast with the statement that follows:
kai\ o( ko/smo$ au)to\n ou)k e&gnw
“and the world did not know him”
In light of the prior statement, this is a powerful declaration: human beings (in the world) did not recognize the one who created them. To say that they did not recognize the Logos (the Word/Wisdom) of God essentially means that they did not recognize God Himself. This aspect of recognition is expressed through the verb ginw/skw (“know”)—a common verb, but one which takes on special (theological) meaning in the Johannine writings. It occurs 56 times in the Gospel, and another 26 in the Letters (more than a third of all NT occurrences), where it is used parallel with the verb ei&dw [oi@da] (“see”). The verbs ei&dw and ginw/skw are partially interchangeable in Greek, due the close relationship between “seeing” and “knowing”. The Johannine writings make considerable use of this dual-meaning, which ties in naturally with the light-motif (and its light/darkness dualism). In addition to ei&dw (85 times in the Gospel, 16 in the Letters), the Johannine writings make significant use of the verbs ble/pw, qea/omai, qewre/w, and o(ra/w—all denoting sight/observation/perception (= discernment/understanding).
Based on this Johannine usage, to “know” Jesus means to trust and accept him, recognizing that he is the Son of God. From the standpoint of the Prologue, this also means realizing the identification, established in the Christ hymn, of Jesus with the Word and Wisdom (i.e., the Logos) of God. For this reason, it would be a mistake to interpret the statement here as referring simply to the rejection of Jesus by the population during his earthly life and ministry. While the earthly life of Jesus is certainly in view, it is his identification with the Logos, in particular, that is being emphasized.
The influence of Wisdom tradition is very much present here, as it also is in the “Christ hymns” of Colossians (1:15-20) and Hebrews (1:2b-4). On the combination of Jewish Wisdom tradition with the Logos-concept in Greek philosophy, cf. the earlier note on verse 1. The term lo/go$ was especially useful in this regard, encompassing as it does the idea of both the Wisdom and Word of God. In Old Testament and Jewish tradition, we find the motif of the divine Wisdom dwelling among human beings. This is part of a broader tradition, in which God (YHWH) is said to make His dwelling (Heb. /k*v=m!) among the people Israel (symbolically, in the Tent-shrine or Temple sanctuary, etc). Sirach 24:8ff describes how the Divine Wisdom similarly set up his Tent-dwelling among the people (cf. also the more general reference in Prov 8:31).
The same idea can be expressed in terms of the personified Word of God. In particular, we may note the line of Jewish tradition, represented in the Aramaic Targums, in which the term ar*m=ym@ (mêmr¹°, “the saying, the word”) came to be used as a conceptual intermediary when speaking of the person of God. It developed as a pious circumlocution, a way to avoid attributing to YHWH Himself specific human (i.e., anthropomorphic) characteristics or actions. According to this line of tradition, when God says “I will be with you” (Exod 3:12), it is rendered/interpreted as “My Mêmr¹° will be your support”. Similarly, the concept of YHWH dwelling among His people would be explained in terms of His Word (Mêmr¹°) dwelling among them. Cf. Brown, p. 523-4.
An important part of the Wisdom tradition involves the specific exhortation for God’s people (the righteous) to pursue wisdom, with the understanding that many people (even in Israel) will reject it. Thus, the motif of Wisdom seeking to dwell among the people, when combined with the idea of many people rejecting Wisdom, leads to the natural image of Wisdom failing to find a suitable dwelling-place on earth. In 1 Enoch 42, the story is told of Wisdom finding a home among the angels in heaven; the brief narrative involves an unsuccessful attempt to find a dwelling on earth among human beings:
“Then Wisdom went out to dwell with the children of the people, but she found no dwelling place” (v. 2, translation E. Isaac in Charlesworth, OTP).
Almost certainly, the Christ hymn here in the Prologue draws upon the same basic line of Wisdom tradition.