January 1: John 1:15

John 1:15

In the previous notes on vv. 14, 16, I mentioned how verse 15 appears intrusive, interrupting the flow of the poetic strophe. On the theory that the Prologue is based on an existing Christ-hymn, verse 15 unquestionably represents a secondary addition. Even if the Prologue-hymn were composed by the Gospel writer, one should still regard v. 15 as secondary, presumably (in that instance) added by an editor or redactor. In my view, there are good reasons for considering verse 15 as qualitatively different from the prose ‘additions’ in vv. 6-9, 12b-13, and 17-18. I regard those additions as the work of the Gospel writer, who is expounding and applying the lines of each section of the hymn.

Verse 15 appears quite different. As already mentioned, it interrupts the poetry of the hymn. It is difficult to understand (or explain) why an author or editor would have chosen to do so. There are, in fact, two major issues to address in our study on v. 15, in the context of the Prologue. First, the nature and meaning of the statement itself; and, second, why it was included/inserted at just this point in the hymn. We will begin examining the first issue in today’s note.

The statement in verse 15:

“Yohanan witnesses about him and has cried (out), saying: ‘the (one) coming (in) back of me has come to be in front of me (in) that [i.e. because] he was first/foremost (over) me’.”

The initial point to note is that this statement is virtually identical with the saying by the Baptist in verse 30. It may be helpful to see this in its immediate context by citing verses 29-31 (with v. 30 highlighted in bold):

On the (day) upon the morrow, he looks at Yeshua coming toward him and says: “See, the Lamb of God, the (one) taking up the sins of the world. This is (the one) over whom I said, ‘(in) back of me comes a man who has come to be in front of me (in) that [i.e. because] he was first/foremost (over) me’. And I had not seen [i.e. known] him, but (so) that he should be made to shine (forth) to Yisrael, I (have) come dunking [i.e. baptizing] in water.”

There is every reason to think that the saying in v. 15/30 represents a distinctly Johannine version of the Gospel tradition in Mark 1:7 par. Combining v. 30 with the earlier saying in vv. 27-28 yields a statement that is very close in substance with Mk 1:7 par. That tradition is discussed at length in the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”.

It would seem that verse 15 is a reference back to the saying in verse 30, even though v. 15 comes at an earlier point in the finished Gospel. In the work as it stands, it looks forward to the Baptist narrative in vv. 19-28ff. The opening words of v. 15 also echo the ‘addition’ to the first strophe of hymn (vv. 3-5) in verses 6-9. There it was stated that John “gave witness” (vb marture/w) to the Light—that is, to the pre-existent Logos and Son, identified with the person of Jesus. Similarly, here in v. 15, we read how John “gives witness about” (marturei= peri/) the Son. The added words “and has cried (out)” (kai\ ke/kragen) may be an allusion to Isa 40:3 and the identification of John with the herald of the Isaian oracle (see v. 23, and compare Mk 1:3 par).

There are three phrases in this saying (in v. 15/30), each of which is governed by a specific verb (and form), as well as a prepositional/relational expression which emphasizes the relationship between John and Jesus. The wording is most significant to observe (the distinctions being generally obscured in translation):

    • “the one coming [e)rxome/no$] in back of [o)pi/sw] me”
    • “has come to be [ge/gonen] in front of [e&mprosqe/n] me”
    • “(he) was [h@n] first/foremost [prw=to/$] (over) me”

These three verbs are used with great care in the Gospel, when applied to Jesus, and especially in the ‘Prologue’. They are part of a distinctive Johannine theological vocabulary, and the way that they mark the phrasing here strongly suggests that we are dealing with an adaptation and interpretation of a simpler tradition (such as in Mk 1:7 par, cf. above).

The wording in these three phrases is such that it is necessary to provide a detailed exegesis. I have done this, to varying degrees, in earlier notes; here, in order to keep the discussion focused and streamlined within the setting of a daily note, I will be devoting a note to each phrase.

Phrase 1:

o( o)pi/sw mou e)rxo/meno$
“the (one) coming (in) back of me”

The verb in this phrase is e&rxomai, in the form of a substantive verbal noun—a present participle with the definite article.

e&rxomai is a basic verb in narration and description which fundamentally means “come, go”. It is used frequently in the Gospel of John, often with a deeper theological or spiritual nuance than ordinary coming/going. In particular Jesus speaks of coming from the Father and going (back) to the Father; believers also come to Jesus (and to the Father). In the Prologue, the verb occurs three times (outside of v. 15):

    1. John came [h@lqen] as a witness to the (true) Light (v. 7)
    2. The reference is to someone coming [e)rxo/menon] into the world (v. 9). It is not entirely clear whether this relates to “every man” or “the true Light”; the latter is to be preferred, making it a reference to the Christ (as the incarnate Logos) coming into the world
    3. The Logos (Christ) came [h@lqen] to his own… (v. 11)

These references all relate to the appearance/presence of a human being in the world (i.e. among people). The present participle in v. 15 is matched by the participle in v. 9. In terms of the incarnate Logos (i.e., the Word/Wisdom of God), this is a reference to the earthly life and ministry of Jesus, as was discussed in the earlier notes on verse 10-11 and 14. At the point where v. 15 is introduced (or inserted), the focus has already shifted from the Logos to the Son—both Divine figures being identified with Jesus.

o)pi/sw mou (“[in] back of me”)—this is the prepositional expression, and it can mean:
(a) Jesus is younger, and has appeared publicly later than, John; or
(b) Jesus is/was a follower of John; or even
(c) Jesus was unknown or less well known than John.

Many critical scholars accept (b) as an authentic historical detail, which can be debated. In terms of Gospel tradition as it has come down to us, and the overall presentation in the Gospel of John here, probably little more than (a), or some combination of (a) and (c), is intended.

There is, however, unquestionably an apologetic in the Gospel of John, emphasizing the superiority of Jesus in relation to John. Verse 15/30 gives a focused theological expression to the point, but it can be seen throughout chapters 1-3, and is a significant aspect of the ‘additions’ to the Prologue hymn. Indeed, this apologetic emphasis is part of the wider Gospel tradition, built into the core Synoptic narrative (of the Baptism scene, etc); it is also central to the structure of the Lukan Infancy narrative. For a more detailed discussion, I would direct interested readers to the articles on the Baptism of Jesus in the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”.

The wording in verse 30, differs slightly: “(in) back of me comes [e&rxetai] a man [a)nh/r]”. The verb is a present indicative form, but one close in meaning to the present participle in v. 15. The noun a)nh/r (“man”) emphasizes the reality of Jesus’ life and existence as a human being. On the Messianic significance of the expression “the (one) coming” (o( e)rxo/meno$), cf. my special note in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

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