December 20: John 1:6-8

John 1:6-8

The lines referring to John the Baptist (vv. 6-8, 15) are considered by many commentators to be secondary additions to the Christ-hymn which otherwise forms the core of the Johannine Prologue. Their inclusion is seen as either the work of an editor (to the initial version of the Gospel), or by the Gospel writer himself (to an existing hymn). The verses are prosaic and explanatory, generally lacking the poetic rhythm and style that characterizes the rest of the Prologue (examined in the previous notes on vv. 1-5). Functionally, their purpose in the Prologue is two-fold:

First, they serve to connect the Prologue with the opening sections of the Gospel narrative, in which John the Baptist is featured (1:19-35ff, also 3:22-30ff). This is especially important if the Gospel is adapting an existing Christ-hymn, which likely would have made no mention of the Baptist.

Second, they introduce an important theme of the opening sections—the relationship between John and Jesus, with emphasis on the superiority of Jesus and his definitive identity as the Anointed One (Messiah). This theme is not unique to the Gospel of John, but was part of the early Christian and Gospel tradition. In the Synoptic tradition (as in the Gospel of John), the Gospel narrative begins with the appearance of John the Baptist, along with a summary of his preaching and baptizing ministry. The central event of this tradition is the baptism of Jesus (Mk 1:9-11 par, cp. Jn 1:29-34), but it relates to important questions regarding the relationship between John and Jesus, questions which were of Messianic significance. As the Gospels themselves make clear, there were at least some Jews at the time who considered that John the Baptist might be the Messiah (Lk  3:15ff; Jn 1:19-23ff; cf. Mk 6:14-16 par; 8:28 par). Early Christians would have had no motivation to record these details if they did not stem from authentic tradition.

In speaking of the “Anointed One” (Messiah), it is important to keep in mind that there were a number of Messianic figure-types within Jewish thought in the first centuries B.C./A.D. The royal Messiah (i.e., the Davidic ruler figure-type) is the most familiar, but there were other figure-types, including several Messianic Prophet types. The two main prophetic types were based on the figures of Elijah and Moses, respectively; in addition, we have the anointed herald figure of Isa 61:1ff, echoed in a number of other (Deutero-)Isaian passages (such as 40:1-5). It is hard to see how people at the time could have viewed John as the Davidic Messiah, if the Gospel portrait of him and his ministry is accurate. However, he certainly might have been considered to be a Messianic Prophet, either of the Elijah, Moses, or Isaian herald type. Early Christian tradition ultimately came to interpret John as the “Elijah” who would ‘prepare the way’ for Jesus as the true Messiah, and this already is reflected at several points in the Synoptic narrative.

However, in the Fourth Gospel (1:19-23), John denies being this figure at all—any form of the Messianic Prophet, apart from a fulfillment of the herald figure of Isa 40:3ff. The implication is that Jesus is the Messianic Prophet (both the Moses and Elijah types), and much of the early Gospel tradition seems to evince the same belief. Indeed, during Jesus’ Galilean ministry, he appears to fulfill the role of “Elijah” (and note his identification with both Moses and Elijah in the Transfiguration scene), though the Anointed Herald of Isaiah 61 provides a closer fit for his ministry as it is described in the Synoptic narrative. Jesus identifies himself with the Isaian figure-type in at least two different strands of tradition (Matt 11:4-5 par [Q], and Lk 4:16-21ff). For more on this subject, cf. Parts 2 and 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, along with the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition” (articles on the Baptism of Jesus).

In the earliest tradition, the “Anointed One” (Messiah) mentioned in Jn 1:20ff most likely referred to a Messianic Prophet, as noted above. However, by the time that the Gospel of John was written, Christians almost certainly would have understood the term in its more customary sense of the Davidic Ruler type. In any case, by the end of the New Testament period, the concept of Messiah (= Christ) had broadened among early Christians to encompass most, if not all, of the Messianic figure-types—with all of them being applied to the person of Jesus. This is unquestionably how Johannine Christians of the late-1st century would have understood the matter, reflecting the clear belief that Jesus was the Messiah, in every sense. For a full discussion, cf. the articles in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

But the Gospel of John goes even further than this, as the opening lines of the Prologue make clear. Not only is Jesus to be identified as the Messiah, but with the pre-existent Word and Wisdom of God as well.

Let us briefly examine verses 6-8 in more detail.

“There came to be a man, having been se(n)t forth from alongside God, (and the) name (given) to him (was) Yohanan. This (one) came unto [i.e. to be] a witness, (so) that he should give witness about the Light, (so) that all might trust through him. That (one) was not the Light, but (came so) that he might give witness about the Light.”

The first thing to note is the way that these verses continue the distinction (in the Prologue) between the verb of being (ei)mi) and becoming (gi/nomai). The verb of becoming is used for created beings, while the verb of being is reserved for God. Therefore, in speaking of John the Baptist, gi/nomai is used: “There came to be [e)ge/neto] a man…” —that is, a certain human being came to be born and live on earth. The verb of being (ei)mi, imperfect h@n, “was”) is used in verse 8, but only by way of negation: “that (one) [i.e. John] was not [ou)k h@n]…”. In Johannine theological terminology, this means that the Baptist was simply a human being, unlike Jesus, who has/had divine existence as the Logos.

Note also other parallels in terminology, as if the comparison (between John and Jesus) was being introduced here in linguistic terms:

    • John was “sent forth” from God, even as Jesus (the Son) was sent—cp. 3:17, 34, etc (same vb a)poste/llw)
    • John was sent from “alongside” (para/) God (meaning the command came from God), while the Son had his pre-existent dwelling “alongside” God, being truly sent from Him (v. 14, 17:5, etc; in vv. 1-2 the preposition is pro/$ [“toward”], rather than para/, but with much the same meaning)
    • John is identified as the one sent by God with the designation “this one” (ou!to$), using the demonstrative pronoun, much as Jesus (“this one”) is identified with the Logos in v. 2.
    • “All things” in the universe come into being “through” Jesus the Logos (“through him,” di’ au)tou=), while “all (people)” were able to trust in Jesus (as the Messiah) through the witness of John (“through him”).

The most important point of comparison is that, while John functioned as a light (cf. 5:35, where he is called a ‘lamp’ [lu/xno$] that shines light), but he is not the light (to\ fw=$)—that is, the Light of God, which Jesus, the pre-existent Word/Wisdom of God possesses. John’s light is secondary, since he merely functions as a witness (marturi/a, vb marture/w) to the Light. Jesus also is a witness to the Light, but in a different way, since he manifests and embodies the Divine Light in his very person. This light-motif, or characteristic, will be discussed further in the next daily note (on verse 9).

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