Birth of the Son of God: John 1:1-18

For the introduction to this series of Christmas season notes (on the theme of “The birth of the Son of God“) see the previous discussion on Luke 1:28-35—the Angelic message to Mary, which climaxes with the declaration:

to\ gennw/menon a%gion klhqh/setai ui(o\$ qeou=
“…the (child) coming to be (born) will be called Holy, (the) Son of God”

When we turn from the Infancy narratives (of Luke and Matthew) to the prologue of the Gospel of John (Jn 1:1-18), we enter into a very different world of terms, concepts and images; and yet, as we shall see, there are number of interesting parallels with words and phrases found in Lk 1:28-35 etc.

John 1:1-18

Let us begin by looking at the verb genna/w, which is used as a verbal (neuter) substantive in Lk 1:35b—to\ gennw/menon “the (one) [i.e. the child] coming to be (born)”. In the first chapter of John, this verb appears only once (in v. 13, cf. below), not in reference to Jesus’ birth, but rather to the (spiritual) birth of believers. The verbs genna/w and the cognate gi/nomai both have the basic meaning “become, come to be”; genna/w more specifically has the denotation “come to be born“, but gi/nomai can be used in this sense as well. Because of the similarities in both form and meaning, these verbs are occasionally confused in the textual tradition, sometimes with subtle (but potentially significant) theological import (cf. ge/nesi$ vs. ge/nnhsi$ in Matt 1:18, and geno/menon vs. gennw/menon in Gal 4:4 [also Rom 1:3]). In the Johannine prologue, the Gospel writer distinguishes carefully between use of the existential verb ei)mi (“be”) and gi/nomai (“come to be”), with the former used of God (and the divine Logos), and the latter used of created beings—note the threefold use of ei)mi (“the Logos was [h@n]”) in v. 1 and of gi/nomai (“came to be / has come to be” [e)ge/neto / ge/gonen]) in v. 3. Only in verse 14, is gi/nomai used of Christ (that is, of the pre-existent Word/Logos [lo/go$]):

“and the Logos came to be flesh [kai\ o( lo/go$ sa/rc e)ge/neto] and dwelt [lit. put down tent] among us…”

Based on the context of vv. 1-13, this clearly is a reference to what we would call the incarnation of the pre-existent Word of God, identified here of course with the person of Christ, and almost certainly influenced by language and imagery related to divine Wisdom (personified) in Old Testament/Jewish tradition. Twice more in this chapter, gi/nomai is used of Jesus, in the parallel declaration by the Baptist (vv. 15, 30):

“the one coming [e)rxo/meno$] behind me has come to be [ge/gonen] in front of me, (in) that [i.e. because] he was [h@n] first of me [i.e. first for me, ‘my first’]”

All three of these verbs—ei)mi, gi/nomai, e&rxomai—have definite theological/christological connotation and significance in the Gospel. Though it is extremely difficult to offer a precise interpretation of this complex saying, I would suggest:

  1. e&rxomai (“coming”)—refers to Jesus’ coming into the world, specifically his public appearance/emergence in Israelite/Jewish society (cf. verse 11); chronologically, and in terms of the Gospel narrative, Jesus appears on the scene after John.
  2. gi/nomai (“come to be”)—following on verse 14, I take this a kind of veiled reference to the incarnation, that is to say of the man Jesus’ status as the incarnate Logos/Word of God; in this sense, Jesus is in front of John (as well as of all other human beings).
  3. ei)mi (“was”)—based on the usage in vv. 1ff, this more properly (and precisely) indicates Jesus’ deity and identity with God the Father; clearly, Jesus is to be considered “the first” (prw=to$).

Only once in the Gospel is the verb genna/w applied to Jesus—in Jesus’ own declaration to Pilate in Jn 18:37:

“unto this have I come to be (born) [gege/nnhmai] and unto this have I come [e)lh/luqa] into the world….”

This is the only specific reference to Jesus’ birth in John, but the pairing of genna/w and e&rxomai, along with the image of Jesus coming into the world, offers a reasonably close parallel to the use of gi/nomai and e&rxomai in Jn 1:11f, 14 (also vv. 15, 30). Jn 1:17-18 also provides an interesting parallel to v. 14 in its use of:

  • gi/nomai  (v. 17)—”the favor [xa/ri$] and the truth (of God) came to be [e)ge/neto] through Jesus Christ”, i.e. Jesus is the (incarnate) manifestation/representation of divine truth and favor (grace).
  • monogenh/$ (v. 18)—this word is almost impossible to render into English; literally, it means something like “(the) only (one who has) come to be”, and often carries the general sense of “(one and) only” or “one of a kind, unique”—the traditional rendering “only-begotten/born” probably reads too much into the term, though monogenh/$ can be used of an “only child”.

Both words appear in verse 14, framing the declaration:

“the Logos came to be [e)ge/neto] flesh… as (of) an only (son) [monogenh/$] alongside (the) Father”

It is not possible here to enter into the thorny text-critical debate over the reading monogenh\$ ui(o/$ (“only Son“) vs. monogenh\$ qeo/$ (“only God“), as the textual evidence is evenly divided and strong arguments can be mustered on both sides. I have discussed the issue in an earlier note, and will do so again as part of this Christmas series. If ui(o/$ (“Son”) is correct, then it spells out what is already implied in v. 14, and may provide another implicit reference to the birth of Jesus as the “Son of God”.

Another parallel between v. 17 and v. 14 is the combination of “(the) favor and truth (of God)”. The word xa/ri$ is often translated “grace”, though I consistently render it as “favor”, especially in the context of the favor/grace of God. There is an interesting synchronicity or resemblance in detail, however faint, between Jn 1:14, 17 and Lk 1:28ff, centered on the word xa/ri$ (“favor”)—in conceiving and giving birth to Jesus as son, Mary has found favor with [lit. “alongside”, para/] God (Lk 1:30), while Jesus himself is the manifestion of God’s favor, as of a Son “alongside” [para/] God. The expressions plh/rh$ xa/rito$ (Jn 1:14) and kexaritwme/nh (Lk 1:28) have (at times) both been translated “full of grace”, though, as indicated above, I would render the first expression as “full of (the) favor (of God)”, while the second properly means “favored (one)”, i.e. favored by God.

Returning to Lk 1:35, two other terms have parallels in the Johannine prologue—namely, the verb genna/w and the title “Son of God” (ui(o\$ qeou=)—in verse 13. These will be examined in the next article in this series.