June 7: John 1:12-13

John 1:12-13

The theme of the sonship of believers is most prominent in the Johannine writings. Indeed, it is a key component of the Johannine theology, as expressed throughout the Gospel and Letters of John. In the Gospel, the theme is introduced within the Prologue (1:1-18), at verses 12-13.

As discussed in my recent study, and in an earlier set of notes, one theory regarding the composition of the Prologue, which has gained wide acceptance among commentators, is that the Gospel writer has adapted an existing Christ-hymn—presumably one which had been in use among the Johannine churches. There have been a number of plausible reconstructions, attempting to isolate the core hymn. While there remain differences of opinion regarding the portions that derive from an original hymn, there is general agreement that verses 6-8, 12-13, and 15 represent expository comments by the Gospel writer. These comments serve to integrate the hymn more fully into the Gospel narrative; in particular, the references to John the Baptist (vv. 6-8, 15) establish the important Jesus-John contrast that runs through chapters 1-3.

Far more essential to the message of the Gospel—and the Johannine theology—as a whole are the comments in vv. 12-13. Some commentators see verse 12a as part of the original hymn. Indeed, it does follow verses 9-11 quite naturally, and seems to provide a necessary climax for this portion of the hymn:

“He came unto his own,
and (yet) his own did not receive him;
but as (many) as did receive him,
to them he gave authority to become offspring of God”
(vv. 11-12a)

In my view, verses 9-11 refer primarily to the presence/activity of the Word/Wisdom (Logos) of God throughout history—particularly the history of the Israelite/Jewish people. While this section anticipates the incarnation of the Logos (in the person of Jesus), that is not the principal point of reference in these verses. To everyone who receives (i.e., accepts) the Word/Wisdom of God, the Divine Word/Wisdom enables that person to become a child of God. This is a theme of Wisdom literature (e.g., Wisd 2:13, 16-18; Sirach 4:10)—viz., that it is specifically the righteous person who is the true son/child of God.

Even if verse 12a is part of the original hymn, and refers primarily to the presence/activity of the Divine Wisdom generally, what follows in vv. 12b-13 definitely represents a Christological application of this tradition by the Gospel writer. Ahead of the actual reference to the incarnation of Christ (v. 14), the author introduces a key theme regarding believers in Christ—namely, that they/we are to be identified as the children (lit. “offspring,” te/kna) of God, on the basis of our trust in Jesus. The Johannine writings always use the noun te/knon (plur. te/kna) for believers, with the noun ui(o/$ (“son”) being reserved for Jesus (as the Son); believers are never referred to as the “sons [ui(oi/] of God” (cp. Gal 3:26; Rom 8:14, 19).

The continuation of verse 12 (including v. 13) reads:

“but as (many) as did receive him,
to them he gave authority to become offspring of God,
to the (one)s trusting in his name—
those who, not out of blood, and not out of (the) will of (the) flesh, and not out (the) will of man, but out of God have come to be (born).”

The qualifying phrase “to the (one)s trusting in his name” makes clear that the Gospel writer is interpreting vv. 9-12a specifically in terms of Jesus Christ as the incarnate Word/Wisdom of God (v. 14).

An equally important point of interpretation for the Gospel writer is that this ‘birth’ of believers is in no way an ordinary physical/biological birth. This is emphasized by the three-fold denial in v. 13:

    • “not out of blood” —that is, not the result of the biological/chemical processes involving blood; the plural of the noun ai!ma (lit. “bloods”) could be meant to include the contributions from both the father and mother.
    • “not out of (the) will of (the) flesh” —that is, the biological-sexual drive for intercourse and procreation.
    • “not out of (the) will of man” —that is, the human desire and intention (by both father and mother) to have children.

Instead, the birth of a believer is entirely spiritual, coming from God Himself.

There is an interesting (minor) variant reading in v. 13, which is notable for its Christological implications. Instead of the plural (“those who…have come to be be born” [oi^e)gennh/qhsan]), a few textual witnesses read the singular (i.e., “the [one] who…came to be born” [o^e)gennh/qh]). This reading occurs in no surviving Greek manuscript, but is found in one Old Latin manuscript (b), and is attested by several early Christian writings of the 2nd-3rd centuries—the Epistle of the Apostles §3; Irenaeus Against Heresies III.16.2, 19.2; and Tertullian On the Flesh of Christ §§19, 24. The singular reading, doubtless influenced by the preceding pronoun (“his [name]”) at the end of v. 12, makes the ‘birth’ in v. 13 that of Jesus himself—i.e., the incarnation, or, more specifically, his virginal conception and birth. There have been a few commentators, going back to Harnack and Schmid (cf. also Zahn, Blass, Loissey, Boismard, and others; for a thorough treatment, see Vellanickal, pp. 112-32), who have argued that the singular reading is original; however, the vast majority of scholars accept the overwhelming external evidence for the plural. On the significance of the singular reading in the context of the Christological debates of the 2nd-3rd centuries, see the discussion by Ehrman (pp. 26-27, 59).

The plural is certainly more in keeping with the Johannine theological idiom. And, indeed, the language in vv. 12b-13 is thoroughly Johannine—particularly the use of the substantive participle (with definite article), as a way of referring to believers, and the specific idiom of the preposition e)k (“out of”) + the verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”). Apart from the second occurrence (possibly) of the verb in 1 John 5:18, this theological use of genna/w always refers to believers. The verb is used of Jesus in Jn 18:37, but in reference to his human birth, not a Divine birth from God.

Verse 13 contains the first occurrence of this important genna/w + e)k (“come to be born out of”) idiom, referring to the spiritual birth of believers (and to the opposite, for unbelievers). It occurs nine more times in the Gospel (eight of which are in 3:3-8), and ten times in 1 John. The idiom is distinctively Johannine, reflecting the Johannine theology, and is virtually non-existent in the rest of the New Testament. In the next daily note, we will examine how this idiom is used to express the sonship-theme in 3:3-8.

References above marked “Ehrman” are to Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (Oxford University Press: 1993).
“Vellanickal” refers to Matthew Vellanickal, The Divine Sonship of Christians in the Johannine Writings (Rome: Biblical Institute Press: 1977).