December 9: John 1:1b

John 1:1, continued

The central word in the first verse of the Prologue, and the subject of each of the three clauses in v. 1 (cf. the previous note) is the noun lo/go$ (logos), which can be difficult to translate due to its rather wide semantic range. Because the word is so important for establishing the meaning and the theology of the Prologue, it is worth discussing the matter here in some detail.

On the word lo/go$

The noun lo/go$ is derived from the verb le/gw, which has the fundamental meaning of “gather”, but also came to be used in range of related senses: (a) “lay out”, i.e., arrange the things gathered; (b) “count”, both in the concrete sense of enumerating things gathered, but also in the more abstract sense of a mental gathering (i.e., reckon, consider, recall [from memory], etc); (c) “give an account”, then in the more general sense of “narrate”; and, finally, (d) “speak, say”, generalizing the idea of giving a spoken (oral) account of something. The common signification of “speak/say” for le/gw can again take on various nuances of meaning, when used in different contexts involving speech, narration, etc.

The noun lo/go$ (“gathering, collection”) itself covers much the same semantic range as the verbal root le/gw (cf. above). Basically, this range of meaning can be divided into: (i) a mental gathering (“reckoning, calculation, plan, reason”), and (ii) a more concrete accounting, either as a written/notational account, or a spoken (oral) account (“speech”). The basic meaning of “account” for lo/go$ is perhaps the closest to the mark, but the mental and spoken aspects can be generalized as “thought” and “word”, or even in a more abstract generalization as “thing” (i.e., something thought or spoken of).

Given this wide range of meaning, with an emphasis on thought and reason, etc, it is not surprising that lo/go$ came to be used in specialized philosophical and theological contexts. It is most often associated with Stoic philosophy, but this usage goes back at least as far as the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraklitos (c. 540-480 B.C.). In a number of surviving fragments, quoted by later authors, Heraklitos uses the term lo/go$ to refer to the divine power/presence that binds the universe together, giving it order and holding its different components and aspects in balance. In fragment 1 (Sextus Empiricus VII.132), he states that “all things (are) coming to be according to the lo/go$” (ginome/nwn pa/ntwn kata\ to\n lo/gon). The same author (VII.129) quotes Heraklitos as referring to this “divine lo/go$” (o( qei=o$ lo/go$). The logos is thus divine, a manifestation of God, a rational intelligence that gives order to all things in creation, providing a balanced arrangement that holds and binds the universe together. This generally corresponds with the later Stoic use of the term for the mind of God that penetrates creation, ordering and controlling all things.

Hellenistic Jewish philosophers—of whom Philo of Alexandria is the most notable example—blended this Logos-concept together with a line of Old Testament Wisdom tradition that reaches back to the famous passage in Proverbs 8:22-31. Wisdom (Hebrew hm*k=j*), personified as a divine or heavenly being, was with God at the beginning of creation, and functioned as the means/instrument through which YHWH created the universe. Later Jewish tradition expanded upon this idea, developing the concept of the divine Wisdom (Grk Sofi/a) that created, pervades, and sustains the universe (Wisdom 7:22-8:1; 9:2ff; 10:1ff; Sirach 1:3-10; chap. 24; 33:7-8ff; 42:21; Baruch 3:15ff, etc). Philo of Alexandria subsumed this Wisdom tradition under the concept of the Logos, and the Prologue of John appears to have done much the same. It is probably more accurate to say that the Johannine Prologue, like the New Testament “Christ hymns” in Philippians, Colossians, and Hebrews, drew upon a common line of Hellenistic Jewish Logos/Wisdom tradition. The Logos/Wisdom concept was adopted by early Christians and applied to the person of Jesus. This will be discussed further as we proceed through the Prologue.

Verse 1b

“In (the) beginning was the Lo/go$, (1a)
and the Lo/go$ was toward God, (1b)
and the Lo/go$ was God.” (1c)

The first clause (1a) was introduced in the previous note. Today, we will focus on the second clause (1b), while keeping the first in view.

kai\ o( lo/go$ h@n pro\$ to\n qeo/n
“and the Word was toward God”

kai/ (“and”)—the three component clauses of v. 1 are joined by the conjunctive particle kai/. Here the conjunction indicates that the statements are unified, in terms of referring to the Logos as divine, but that the statements also complement (or supplement) each other, emphasizing different aspects of a single theological declaration. In this case, the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

o( lo/go$ (“the word”)—on the meaning and background of the noun lo/go$, cf. the discussion above. Translation of this noun is notoriously difficult, as has been indicated, all the more so when the term used in the specialized philosophical and theological sense—whether by Heraklitos, Philo of Alexandria, or here in the Johannine Prologue. The basic idea involves a rational (divine) intelligence that gives order to all things in creation. However, Old Testament and Jewish tradition added to this philosophical concept the important aspect of God (YHWH) creating the universe—which He does through His Wisdom (Prov 8:22-31), but also through His Word (Gen 1:1ff). The term lo/go$ is especially useful because it captures this aspect of speech (the spoken word), in addition to the mental aspect (thought, plan, reason). It has become customary to translate lo/go$ in Jn 1:1 and 14 as “word”, and, in context, this is as good a translation as any, though it certainly does not encompass the entire meaning.

h@n (“was”)—in each of the three clauses of v. 1, the verbal element is an imperfect active indicative form of the common verb of being (ei)mi). As mentioned in the previous note, this verb form has special theological significance in the Gospel of John (and the Johannine Prologue, in particular). In each of the clauses, it is used to signify the deity of the Logos. However, this is done in different ways. The first clause has no proper predicate, but simply states that the Logos was—with the implication being that it had existence “in the beginning”, that is, a divine pre-existence. Here, in the second clause, the force of the verb is somewhat different, because of the predicate expression that follows, establishing an important point of reference regarding the relationship between the Logos and God.

pro/$ (“toward”)—the preposition pro/$ literally, and primarily, means “toward”, and so I have translated it above. This can be understood either in terms of (a) facing toward, or (b) moving toward. Whether the positional or dynamic aspect is being emphasized is difficult to say. The main point is that the Logos is present with God “in the beginning”, and has a close/intimate relationship with Him. There is almost certainly an intentional parallel in the closing verse of the Prologue (v. 18), when it speaks of the Son (par. Logos) being “in” (lit. “into”, ei)$) the lap of the Father.

o( qeo/$ (“God”)—as noted above, the predicate of the clause is a prepositional phrase that establishes the relationship of the Logos with God. Certainly, by qeo/$ here is meant El-Yahweh, the Creator and one true God, according to the traditional monotheistic belief held in common by Israelites, Jews and early Christians. In Old Testament and Jewish tradition, the divine Wisdom (personified) was the first of God’s creation, and was with Him at the beginning, when the universe was created (Prov 8:22-31). In Prov 8:30, Wisdom declares that, in the beginning, he/she was “near” (lx#a@) YHWH, which is expressed in the LXX by the preposition para/ (“alongside”).

While early Christians drew upon this line of tradition, they gave to it a new dimension when it was applied to the person of Jesus. The Wisdom motif had to be incorporated within the established parameters of the early Christology, centered around three primary titles— “Anointed One” (Messiah), “Son of God”, and “Lord” —and the central Gospel message of the resurrection/exaltation of Jesus. The aspect of YHWH as God the Father must be understood here, in the context of the Johannine theology, even though the theme of Jesus’ Sonship has not yet been introduced in the Prologue. The central relationship (indicated by the preposition pro/$) between the God and the Logos is very much akin to that of Father and Son (note again the parallel between vv. 1 and 18).

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