There is some debate among scholars as to whether verses 12-13 are an integral part of the Christ-hymn of the Johannine Prologue, or an addition to the hymn. In my view, the latter is more convincing. Verse 12a is part of the hymn (the poetic unit, or strophe, of vv. 10-12a), but vv. 12-13 represent an addition that provides an exposition (and interpretive application) of the strophe. Here, again, is the strophe of vv. 10-12a (cf. the previous note):
“He was in the world,
and the world came to be through him,
and (yet) the world did not know him.
He came unto (his) own (thing)s,
and (his) own (people) did not take him along;
but as many (people) as did take him (along),
he gave them (the) ability to become (the) offspring of God”
Verses 12b-13 proceed to explain what is left unspecified in v. 12a: just who it is that receive the Logos and are then given the ability to become the children of God. The syntax of verse 12 is as follows:
“he gave to them…(that is,) to the (one)s trusting in his name”
This is the second occurrence of the key verb pisteu/w (“trust”) in the Prologue (the other being in verse 7). It is central to what it means to be a Christian, a believer in Christ, and epitomizes the very purpose for which the Gospel was written (20:31; 1 Jn 3:23). This “trust” is Christological, referring to an acceptance of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God; in addition, in the context of the Prologue, this entails a recognition of his identity as the Word and Wisdom (i.e., the Logos) of God. To trust “in Jesus’ name” means trusting in the person of Jesus—who he is. Such a declaration of Jesus’ identity, as the exalted (and pre-existent) Son of God, is fundamental to the New Testament Christ hymns, and all the moreso here in the Johannine Prologue-hymn.
In the previous note, we examined the idea, inherited from Wisdom tradition, that the righteous—those who receive and accept the Wisdom of God—are to be regarded as the “sons/children of God”. Similarly here in the Prologue, those who accept the Logos, offering him a welcome ‘dwelling-place’ on earth, are designated as the “offspring [te/kna, i.e. children] of God”. However, this is more than a mere name or designation; rather, believers in Christ come to be (vb gi/nomai) God’s own offspring. The term “son” (ui(o/$) is not used, that word being reserved for Jesus as the Son; yet believers are genuinely born as true children of God. As previously noted, the verb of becoming (gi/nomai) can refer to the birth of a living being (human or animal), though the related verb genna/w indicates this more precisely (that verb is used in v. 13, cf. below).
The Logos, in whom believers trust, gives to them the ability to become the offspring of God, even as he, himself, is God’s offspring (as the Son). The noun used is e)cousi/a, the literal meaning of which is almost impossible to translate in English. It is often translated as “power” or “authority”, but it more properly denotes “ability” —i.e., something which comes from within a person, enabling him/her to accomplish a task, etc. The rendering “authority” usually implies that this ability has been granted to someone by a superior. That is certainly the case here, the ability coming to believers from the Divine Logos; however, the main point is that believers have this ability—it is something that we possess within our own being.
Verse 13 expounds this aspect in more vivid detail, emphasizing the divine reality of the ‘birth’ of believers:
“the (one)s who, not out of blood, and not out of (the) will of (the) flesh, and not out of (the) will of man, but out of God, (have) come to be (born).”
The first three statements are negative—they describe what this birth of believers is not:
- “not out of blood” —this is presumably a shorthand way of referring to the physiology of human birth; interestingly, the noun ai!ma (“blood”) is in the plural here, lit. “out of bloods,” which could conceivably be a comprehensive reference for the physiological process, i.e., the ‘mixing’ of fluids and biological properties, etc.
- “not out of the will of the flesh” —i.e., carnal human desire, the sexual drive, etc; that is to say, it is not related in any way to the sexual process of human birth.
- “not out of the will of man” —i.e., the human desire to have a child, which sets in motion the sexual and physiological/biological process of childbearing.
In other words, the ‘birth’ of believers is altogether different from ordinary human birth. The final statement in verse 13 declares the positive aspect of what this birth is—believers are born “out of God”, that is, they/we are the offspring of God Himself.
The relationship between the ‘sonship’ of believers and the Sonship of Jesus is obvious. The idea of Jesus as the Son of God was implied earlier in the Prologue, but is introduced here, and only through the secondary theme of believers as the sons/children of God. In this regard, it is interesting to note that some early Church Fathers (in the 2nd-4th centuries) knew of a variant reading of verse 13 which apparently referred to the birth of Jesus, rather than the birth of believers. This difference is indicated in the first and last words of the verse: instead of “the (one)s who…(have) come to be born” (oi^…e)gennh/qhsan), the reading would have been “the (one) who…(has) come to be born” (o^$…e)gennh/qh).
However, it is important to note that this reading is not attested in any Greek manuscript, but only in Latin witnesses (and only one surviving Old Latin manuscript [b]). Irenaeus and Tertullian regarded it as the original reading and used it as Scriptural support for the supernatural character (and reality) of Jesus’ birth. In particular, Tertullian accused certain “Gnostic” groups with having altered the text from the singular to the plural (On the Flesh of Christ 19, 24; cf. also Irenaeus, Against Heresies III.16.2, 19.2; The Epistle of the Apostles 3). As it is, nearly all commentators and textual critics hold the opposite view—that the plural was altered to the singular. Why was such an alteration made? Most likely, it was due to a scribal mistake, whereby a copyist (or copyists) mistakenly ‘corrected’ the plural relative pronoun (oi%) to the singular (o%$) to bring it in agreement with the singular pronoun (au)tou=, “his”) at the end of v. 12. The verb in v. 13 would then have been similarly changed to the singular, so as to bring pronoun and verb into agreement. This scribal corruption proved to be fortuitous, since it resulted in a reading that offered additional (Scriptural) confirmation for the supernatural, virginal birth of Jesus.
At this Christmas time, we are indeed celebrating the birth of Jesus. However, verse 13 is not a statement of his (human) birth, but of our (divine/spiritual) birth as believers in him. Even so, the birth of Jesus remains firmly in view here in the Prologue, since the next (and final) strophe of the Prologue-hymn refers quite unequivocally to the incarnation of the Logos, and of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, come to be born on earth, for us, as a human being. This we will examine in the next daily note, as we turn to study verse 14.