May 22: 1 John 1:1 (continued)

1 John 1:1, continued

First John begins with the phrase:

o^ h@n a)p’ a)rxh=$
“That which was from (the) beginning…”

This phrase clearly reflects the language of the opening lines of the Gospel Prologue (1:1), and suggests that an edition of the Gospel had been written and was in circulation at the time that 1 John was composed. The various points of similarity between the prologue of 1 John (1:1-4) and the Gospel Prologue (esp. 1:1-5, 14ff) have been noted and charted by many commentators (see, e.g., in Brown, pp. 175-80).

In the previous note, I discussed the significance of the opening (neuter) relative pronoun (o%) and the expression a)p’ a)rxh=$. For all 10 occurrences of the noun a)rxh/ (“beginning”) in the Johannine letters, the prepositional expression a)p’ a)rxh=$ (“from [the] beginning”) is used: the other instances are in 2:7, 13-14, 24 (twice); 3:8, 11, and 2 John 5-6. I noted how there is a clear dual-meaning to the expression, referring to (a) the cosmological context of the beginning of Creation (2:13-14; 3:8), or (b) the beginning of the Christian witness that goes back to the first disciples and the earthly life of Jesus (2:7; 3:11). The references here in 1:1 and in 2:24 encompass both aspects of meaning.

However, the parallel with the Gospel Prologue strongly indicates that the cosmological (and Christological) aspect is primary. This would seem to be confirmed by the repeated use of the relative pronoun throughout vv. 1-3. Note, in this regard, the syntactical structure of verse 1, the main line of which is picked up at verse 3 (with verse 2 being parenthetical):

    • “That which [o%] was from (the) beginning,
      • which [o%] we have heard,
      • which [o%] we have seen with our eyes,
      • which [o%] we looked at
        and (which) our hands felt,

        • about the word [lo/go$] of life—
      • that which [o%] we have seen and heard,
        • we give forth also as a message to you…”

It is quite clear that the neuter pronoun refers, principally, not to a message about Jesus, but to the person of Jesus himself. Specifically, it refers to the physical presence of Jesus during his earthly life and ministry (cf. the emphasis in vv. 14ff of the Gospel Prologue). This, indeed, is the emphasis denoted by the second-level syntax of the repeated relative phrases (using the relative pronoun o%) which qualify the initial phrase. In terms of the Gospel Prologue, these lines refer to the incarnation of the Lo/go$: “the Word [lo/go$] came to be flesh and put down (his) tent [i.e. dwelt] among us”. The disciples heard, saw, and touched the incarnate Word (Jesus) during his earthly life and ministry.

At the third level of syntax, the focus shifts from the person of Jesus to the witness about Jesus, with the syntagmatic parallel phrases:

    • “about the word of life”
      peri\ tou= lo/gou th=$ zwh=$
    • “we give forth also as a message to you”
      a)pagge/llomen kai\ u(mi=n

The use of the preposition peri/ (“about”) clearly shows the reference is to a message, a witness, about Jesus; cp. the use of peri/ in the Gospel Paraclete-sayings (15:26; 16:8-11), discussed in recent notes. The verb a)pagge/llw in verse 3 makes this quite explicit; this verb, or the parallel a)nagge/llw, also features in the Paraclete-sayings (16:13-15, cf. also v. 25).

Just as there is a dual-meaning to the expression a)p’ a)rxh=$ (“from [the] beginning”), so there also is here with the use of the keyword lo/go$, in the expression o( lo/go$ th=$ zwh=$ (“the word of life”). Actually, one might delineate three distinct layers of meaning:

    • Jesus himself as the (incarnate) Word of God; this is confirmed by the parallel with the use of lo/go$ in the Gospel Prologue (1:1, 14).
    • In reference to the word(s) which Jesus speaks—that which he gives and communicates (from God the Father) to believers; in relation to the specific expression “word of life,” cf. John 6:63, also 5:24.
    • According to the basic meaning of lo/go$ as an “account” —i.e., as an account or message about Jesus and the life that he brings; in other words, a reference to the early Christian (Gospel) witness.

It is not immediately apparent that the second meaning above would apply here; however, this aspect becomes quite evident once the reader proceeds to verse 5, where the reference is to the message (i.e., the lo/go$) that Jesus (the incarnate Lo/go$) gives to believers.

In the next daily note, we will give further consideration to the expression “word of life”, and how it is expounded in the parenthetical verse 2.

References above marked “Brown” are to Raymond E. Brown, The Epistles of John, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 30 (1982).

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