The next few daily notes are prefatory to the upcoming articles (on 1 John) in the series “Spiritualism and the New Testament”. The Johannine view of the Spirit—and the Johannine spiritualism—is perhaps most evident in the work known as the First Letter of John. It is in 1 John that we gain a sense of how the spiritual beliefs and ideas, expressed in the Gospel, were understood and applied within the wider Community.
1 John 1:1-4
It is appropriate to begin this study of 1 John with the prologue (1:1-4), even though it makes no reference or allusion to the Spirit. The author’s rhetorical strategy is established in the prologue, and, as I shall demonstrate, the spiritualism of the Johannine congregations is central to the crisis (within the Community) that informs the entire work.
“That which was from (the) beginning…”
o^ h@n a)p’ a)rxh=$…
Verses 1-3 of the prologue constitute a single long and complex (and gramatically awkward) sentence in Greek. It begins with a neuter relative pronoun (in the accusative), o% (“that which”). It is not uncommon for a statement or clause to begin this way in the Johannine writings; indeed, it is rather typical of the Johannine literary style—in the Gospel, see for example 2:5; 13:7, 27; 14:17, 26; 15:7; 17:24.
The use of the noun a)rxh/ (“beginning”) together with the verb of being (in the imperfect tense), h@n, “he was”, immediately brings to mind the opening lines of the Gospel Prologue (1:1ff), with their allusion to the Genesis Creation account (Gen 1:1 LXX). Nearly all commentators would agree that the prologue of 1 John relates to the Gospel Prologue; most likely, 1 Jn 1:1-3 was written with the Gospel Prologue hymn (or some form of it) in mind. This would mean (most probably) that 1 John was composed after an edition of the Johannine Gospel had been published and in circulation among the congregations.
There is a dual-meaning to the noun a)rxh/ here in 1 John. One the one hand, the allusion to the Gospel Prologue suggests that the beginning of Creation is in view, with the Christological implication of the Son’s (Jesus’) existence alongside God the Father prior to the Creation. Often overlooked in this regard is the similarity between the opening words of 1 John and Jesus’ statement in Jn 8:25. In response to a question regarding his true identity (“who are you?” su\ ti$ ei@;), Jesus declares: th\n a)rxh\n o% ti kai\ lalw= u(mi=n. This rather enigmatic statement has been explained (and translated) a number of different ways. Most commonly, it is rendered as an exclamation, in a sense corresponding to a literal reading of the words: “What I have been saying to you (from) the beginning!” —perhaps reflecting a certain frustration on Jesus’ part.
While this may be correct, almost certainly there is here another example of Johannine double-meaning, along with the misunderstanding-motif that features so frequently in the Discourses—Jesus’ audience hears his words only on the level of their apparent meaning, unable to grasp the true and deeper significance of what he is saying. In this case, the true meaning of his statement is Christological, and does, indeed, answer the question as to his real identity: “that which is from the beginning” (cf. Jn 1:1). The formal parallel with 1 Jn 1:1 is noteworthy:
In spite of the clear Christological parallel between the opening words of the First Letter and those of the Gospel, it is important to note that, elsewhere in 1 John, in a number of instances, the noun a)rxh/ (and the expression a)p’ a)rxh=$) refers to the beginning of the Christian witness. In the context of the prologue here, this witness goes back to the time of the first disciples, who were physically present with Jesus during his earthly ministry. In this regard, the expression a)p’ a)rxh=$ (“from [the] beginning”) does, indeed, have a dual meaning:
- Evangelistic (Gospel/Christian witness)
The use of the expression a)p’ a)rxh=$ in 1:1, and again (twice) in 2:24, I believe, encompasses both aspects of meaning. That is to say, a)p’ a)rxh=$ refers to Jesus Christ as the one (i.e., the Son) who is from the beginning, and also to the Gospel witness about Jesus which has been proclaimed from the beginning (i.e., his earthly ministry, alongside the first disciples). While both aspects are present in 1:1, I believe that the Christological aspect is primary. This can be seen by the way that the neuter relative pronoun (o%) is repeated throughout the verse. I will further explain and demonstrate this point in the next daily note.