“The Word Became Flesh…”: The Johannine Prologue, part 1

The Context of the Johannine Prologue

The first part of this series on John 1:14 focuses on the place of the verse within the Gospel Prologue (1:1-18). I have previously presented a detailed exegesis of this section, and will not repeat all of that analysis here. The emphasis will be on the relation of verse 14 to the Prologue, from a linguistic, literary, and theological standpoint. This study will proceed along two main lines: (1) an examination of the individual words, expressions, and phrases of verse 14; and (2) how these elements fit within the plan and structure of the Prologue.

Let us begin with the verse on its own:

“And the Word came to be flesh and set up his tent among us, and we looked upon his splendor, (the) splendor as of an only-born (Son) alongside (the) Father, full of favor and truth.”

The initial phrase in the Greek is:

kai\ o( lo/go$ sa\rc e)ge/neto

The connective (copulative) conjunction kai/ (“and”) shows that verse 14 relates to what has come before in the Prologue. But in what manner? A surface reading suggests that, following the application-verses 12-13, the author is picking up the main thread of his poetic narrative from verse 11. This raises the question of whether verses 10-11 refer to the life of Jesus Christ on earth (ahead of the incarnation-reference in v. 14), or whether they describe the presence of the Logos among human beings, prior to the birth/life of Jesus.

Many commentators adopt the latter view, based on the theory that the Prologue, and the Gospel as a whole, has been influenced by Jewish Wisdom traditions. According to this view, a personification of the pre-existent Wisdom of God (Prov 1:20-33; chaps. 8-9; Sirach 24; Wisd 7:22-8:1; 9:9ff; Baruch 3:9ff, etc) has been blended together with the concept of the pre-existent Word (Logos) of God, and that Jesus has been identified with both. In this regard, the poetic tradition of Wisdom dwelling (or seeking to dwell) on earth among human beings (Prov 8:31; Wisd 9:10; Sirach 24:8ff, etc) may well underlie vv. 10-11 of the Prologue. In particular, we may note the references to Wisdom being rejected, and not able to find a welcome place among humankind, not even among God’s people Israel (cf. 1 Enoch 42:2; Sirach 15:7; Baruch 3:12).

This view of Jesus as the incarnation of the pre-existent Wisdom (= Logos) will be discussed further as we proceed in our study.

Another interpretative approach relates verse 14 back to the very beginning of the Prologue, and the initial unit of vv. 1-2. In a noteworthy article written more than fifty years ago*, P. Borgen sought to demonstrate that there was a parallelistic (chiastic) structure to the Prologue, which would line up as follows:

    • Vv. 1-2—The Logos with God before creation
      • V. 3—The Logos creates in primordial time
        • Vv. 4-5—Light and darkness in creation
        • Vv. 6-9—Light comes in the person of Jesus
      • Vv. 10-13—The Logos enters creation (as Jesus) to claim it as its possession
    • Vv. 14-18—The manifestation of the Logos in creation in the person of Jesus

* “Logos was the True Light: Contributions to the Interpretation of the Prologue of John,” Novum Testamentum 14 (1972), pp. 115-130. This article, based on a lecture given in 1970, was later reprinted in the volume Logos was the True Light, and Other Essays on the Gospel of John, Publications edited by the Department of Religious Studies University of Trondheim, No. 9 (1983).

According to Borgen’s view, the Prologue essentially represents a Jewish Christian exposition, in a midrashic or targumic style, of Genesis 1:1ff. It does indeed seem, particularly in vv. 1-5, that we have an interpretive Hellenistic-Jewish exposition of the Genesis Creation account, which then has been applied, in an early Christian context, to the person of Jesus. This will be discussed further during our study.

The words that follow the initial conjunction in verse 14 are: lo/go$ (with the definite article), sa/rc, and the verb form e)ge/neto. Leaving aside, for the moment, the noun sa/rc (“flesh”), I wish to focus on the word pair lo/go$e)ge/neto (“the Word became…”). There is, indeed, an important parallel between vv. 1-2 and v. 14 (cf. above), one which emphasizes the vital distinction between the verb of being (ei)mi) and the verb of becoming (gi/nomai).

As will be discussed, throughout the Gospel (but especially in the Prologue), there is a key distinction between these two common verbs: the verb of being is predicated of God (or a Divine subject), while the verb of becoming is predicated of a created (i.e., human) being. In other words, creation comes to be, but God is. In verses 1-2, the verb of being is used throughout, in the imperfect tense (h@n, “was”), while, with the first mention of creation (in v. 3), the verb of becoming begins to be used (“all things came to be [e)ge/neto] through him”). The same verb of becoming is used in v. 14; note the parallel with v. 1:

    • “the Word was God”
      qeo\$ h@n o( lo/go$
    • “the Word became flesh”
      o( lo/go$ sa/rc e)ge/neto

In verse 1, the deity of the Logos is emphasized, while in verse 14 it is his created humanity. There is thus an implicit contrast between the nouns qeo/$ (“God”) and sa/rc (“flesh”). As we shall see, in the Johannine writings, the noun sa/rc is a key term designating the life and existence of a human being.

One might have expected the contrast to have been between qeo/$ (“God”) and a&nqrwpo$ (“man”). After all, it is the noun a&nqrwpo$ that is used in vv. 4-9; indeed, of John the Baptist, in v. 6, it is said “there came to be [e)ge/neto] a man…”. This first reference to John introduces a theme, contrasting the Baptist with Jesus, that runs throughout chapters 1-3. The specific wording in the Prologue, leading into verse 14, may be intended to emphasize that Jesus was not simply a man like John the Baptist, even one who was Divinely-chosen and “sent forth from God”. Rather, Jesus is to be identified as the incarnate Logos of God.

Throughout the Prologue, the verb of becoming (gi/nomai) essentially refers to the coming into existence of a created being (vv. 3, 6, 10). For a human being (see v. 6), this implies a biological birth. The only exception to this is found in verse 12, where gi/nomai is used of a human being “coming to be” the offspring of God. Yet the idiom of birth is clearly being emphasized, as the parallel use of genna/w, which more precisely denotes “coming to be (born)”, in v. 13 definitely shows. This reflects the thoroughly Johannine theological idiom of believers in Christ defined as those who have “come to be (born) [vb genna/w] out of [e)k] God”.

Given this emphasis, the implication is very strong that gi/nomai in v. 14 also refers to birth—in this case, the birth of the Logos as a human being. This would seem to be confirmed by the declaration by the Baptist that follows in v. 15 (and essentially repeated in v. 30):

“…the (one) coming in back of me has come to be in front of me, (in) that first of me he was”

A careful distinction is made between the use of three common verbs, each with a special theological (and Christological) significance in the Johannine writings:

    • e&rxomai (“come”)—e)rxo/meno$ (“coming,” i.e., he came)
    • gi/nomai (“come to be”)—ge/gonen (“he has come to be”)
    • ei)mi (verb of being)—h@n (“he was”)

The first verb (e&rxomai) refers to the earthly ministry (and public career) of Jesus; the second verb (gi/nomai) refers to birth and (incarnate) existence of the Logos (in Jesus); while the third verb (ei)mi) refers to the Divine/eternal existence of the the Logos, as in vv. 1-2. The contextual use of gi/nomai, along with the specific wording, means that it cannot simply refer to Jesus’ human life, but refers primarily to his coming into existence (i.e., his birth) as a human being.

This will be discussed further in the next segment of this study, as we turn to examine the next words of v. 14, as well as begin to consider the meaning and significance of the noun lo/go$ as it is used here by the Gospel writer.

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