John 1:1 – Insights and Commentary

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“In the beginning was the word
and the word was with God
and the word was fully expressive of God.”

 

John 1:1a

John 1:1a clearly refers back to the Genesis creation. Note the deliberate quotation from Gen. 1:1 LXX:

  • ἐν ἀρχῇ (Gen 1:1 LXX)
  • Εν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος (John 1:1a)
    Throughout the Prologue of the Fourth Gospel (i.e., 1:1-18), there are a variety of markers thatindicate the author has begun his description of the significance of God’s logos in Genesis 1:
  • The mention of the logos with creation (John 1:3, 10) recalls the numerous “And Godsaid…” references in Genesis 1 (eg., Gen 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26, 28, 29).
  • “Let there be light” (Gen 1:3) is noted with multiple references to light and the enlightening ability of the logos (John 1:4, 5, 7, 8, 9).
  • The light created by God’s creative speech overpowers the “darkness” mentioned in Genesis 1:2. The same is stated in John 1:5, 9.
  • The creative speech of God has a clear ordering result, often by bringing order through separating, upon a chaotically disordered world (Gen 1:2-3; 4, 6-7, 9-10, 14-15, 16-18). The logos bears the same function within the Prologue; bringing order to disorder (John 1:5, 9, 12).
  • The creative speech of God creates life on earth (Gen 1:20-22, 24-25, 26-27). The logos explicitly is stated to possess “life” (John 1:4) and is the vehicle through which God created everything (John 1:3, 10).

Of course, it is highly important to note that the Prologue details the activity of the logos throughout history, not just during the Genesis 1 creation. By stating that “All things were created though him,” it intends to be all-encompassing in its scope of the created order. Every created person and every created thing owes its existence to the mediating purpose of the logos. This spans throughout all of history and is thus not limited to what is stated in Genesis 1.

Furthermore, the logos becomes the human Jesus and exercises ministry on the earth (John 1:10- 14). After the ministry of Jesus had concluded, the Prologue sets out the ideal wherein its readers would come to “believe in his name” (John 1:12). In short, the purposes of the logos do not stop in Genesis 1 but rather they extend throughout history, even up to this very day. Older attempts by commentators to divide Genesis 1 and John 1 into “old creation” and “new creation” are therefore deemed as inadequate frames through which to interpret the function of the Prologue.

This word (logos) needs to be thoroughly defined in order to best make sense of how it is being used in the Prologue. The logos is drawn from the Jewish author’s own worldview, which has primarily been shaped by the use of the Hebrew noun davar within the Hebrew Bible. In all of davar’s 1,400 occurrences, it never once refers to a distinct person alongside YHWH. It rather refers to a word, statement, concept, matter, oracle, or a report. It is sometimes personified to highlight God’s interaction with his creation involving his creative speech (eg., Isa 55:11), but this personification never evolves to becoming a separate person alongside Yahweh. This distinction needs to be carefully maintained.

Many translations put a capital ‘W’ on word (logos). Since this Prologue is personifying the logos in accordance with Jewish poetic and metaphoric customs, then the capital ‘W’ is wholly acceptable. We have, however, chosen to not capitalize “word” in order to avoid confusing this personification with an actual person. The fact of the matter is that the Prologue is personifying God’s word in this passage. It is common in sections of poetry for God’s attributes and characteristics to be given personality without suggesting, implying, or teaching that it has become an actual person. In the same way, modern sailors often name their boats after females, even going so far as to address the vessel with feminine pronouns. No one would consider that this boat has become an actual female person. That would be to misunderstand how personification functions. It would be an equal error to regard the personified logos as an actual person alongside God “in the beginning.” Consider this list of regular personifications within Jewish poetic literature:

 

Wisdom

  • Lady Wisdom shouts aloud in the street, in public places she raises her voice. At the head of noisy streets she calls out, where the city gates open she speaks her words, “How long, O naïve ones, will you love naivety?” (Prov 1:21-23)
  • “I love those who love me; And those who desire me will find me.” (Prov 8:17)
  • Lady Wisdom has built her house; she has carved out her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her meat; she has mixed her wine; indeed, she has prepared her table. She has sent out her female servants; she calls out from the tops of the heights of the town, “Whoever is naïve, let him turn in here.” (Prov 9:1-4)

 

Prudence

• “I, Wisdom, dwell with Prudence, And I find knowledge and discretion.” (Prov 8:12)

 

Covenant faithfulness and Truth

  • You, O Yahweh, will not shut out your tender mercies from me. Your covenant faithfulness and truth will continually watch over me. (Psa 40:11)
  • Let him sit enthroned in God’s presence forever. Appoint your covenant faithfulness and truth that they may watch over him! (Psa 61:7)
  • Covenant faithfulness and truth have met together (Psa 85:10)
  • Covenant faithfulness and truth guard the king, and by that covenant faithfulness God sustains the king’s throne. (Prov 20:28)

 

The Arm of the Lord

• Awake, awake, put on strength, O Arm of Yahweh; awake as in the days of old, the generations of long ago. Was it not you (2fs) who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon? (Isa 51:9)

 

Splendor, Majesty, Strength, and Beauty

• Splendor and majesty are before him, strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. (Psa 96:6)

 

Light

• O send out your light and your truth, let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy mountain and to your dwelling places. (Psa 43:3)

 

Goodness

• Surely goodness and covenant faithfulness will follow me all the days of my life (Psa 23:6)
• Righteousness and Peace

• Righteousness and peace have kissed each other (Psa 85:10b) • Integrity and Uprightness

• May integrity and uprightness guard me, for I have waited for you. (Psa 25:21) • Word

• So will my word be which goes forth from my mouth; It will not return to me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it. (Isa 55:11)

Needless to say, there is ample evidence to demonstrate that the Fourth Gospel has been influenced by Jewish personification techniques in its depiction of the logos in the beginning with God. This is not arguing for the beginning of Jesus, since Jesus is what the logos became (John 1:14). Rather, John 1:1a is stating that God’s creative and personified speech was in the beginning (as depicted in Genesis 1). The rest of the Prologue needs to be read in order to understand how extensive the poetic logos will be used and described. After a thorough study of logos in pre-Christian thought, James Dunn similarly concludes that, “Nowhere either in the Bible or in extra-canonical literature of the Jews is the word of God a personal agent or on the way to become such” (Christology in the Making, 2nd ed., 219).

 

John 1:1b

John 1:1b states that “the word was with God.” This language, particularly in reference to the preposition “with,” is often incorrectly read outside of the context of Jewish poetry wherein God’s decrees are regularly stated to be “with” him. Upon examining the context of Jewish literary poetry, we have noted that both God’s word and his wisdom are spoken of as being “with” him. This fact is extremely important to keep in mind as we maneuver through the Prologue, particularly that “word” and “wisdom” were often used as different ways of conveying the same truth within Jewish poetry.

Note the similar parallels to John 1:1b within Jewish literature where this sort of language was quite common:

  • Yet these things you have concealed in your heart; I know that this is with you. (Job 10:13)
  • For he performs what is appointed for me, and many such decrees are with him. (Job 23:14)
  • I will teach you with the hand of God; what is with the Almighty I will not hide. (Job 27:11)
  • And Wisdom is with you, who knows your works (Wisdom 9:9)
  • All wisdom is from the Lord and is with Him forever. (Sirach 1:1)
  • From everlasting I was established, From the beginning, from the earliest times of the earth…When He established the heavens, I was there, When He inscribed a circle on the face of the deep,…Then I was beside Him, as a master workman; And I was daily His delight, Rejoicing always before Him (Prov 8:23, 27, 30)As we have demonstrated, God’s word and wisdom have been said to be “with” him in poetic sections of Jewish literature (i.e., Job, Proverbs, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach). The Prologue of John is also written as poetry, so the genres are a match. Furthermore, this evidence helps demonstrate that the Prologue is dependent upon and in tradition with Jewish depictions of God’s word/wisdom being “with” him in a manner which does not suggest or indicate that there is a separate person alongside Yahweh. In short, John 1:1b is attempting to convey to its readers that God’s creative and personified speech was alongside him in the beginning.

 

John 1:1c

John 1:1c has the logos connected to “God” without the Greek definite article (kai theos en o logos). We have chosen to translate the phrase in John 1:1c as “and the word was fully- expressive of God,” thus regarding this particular use of theos in an adjectival sense. This point is extremely critical to accurately understanding what is being conveyed in the Prologue. A variety of scholars echo the reading we have made in regard to theos in John 1:1c being understood as an adjective expressing and defining God rather than seeing it as a basic noun. In his commentary on John, Merrill Tenney correctly notes the difference and significance in the definite article being used or being deliberately left out. He states that, “When the article is used, the emphasis of the word is on individuality, God as a person; without the article the emphasis is on quality, God as a kind of being” (John: A Gospel of Belief, 65). In the technical work, A Translator’s Handbook on the Gospel of John, both Barclay Newman and Eugene Nida likewise interpret the significance of theos without the article as being adjectival, “Since ‘God’ does not have the article preceding it, ‘God’ is clearly the predicate and ‘the Word’ is the subject. This means that ‘God is here the equivalent of an adjective” (Handbook on John, 8). Further confirmation comes from John Barclay: “When in Greek two nouns are joined by the verb to be and when both have the definite article, then the one is fully identified with the other; but when one of them is without the article, it becomes more an adjective than a noun, and describes rather the class or sphere to which the other belongs” (Jesus as They Saw Him, 21). Even the conservative Greek grammar by Daniel Wallace admits that John 1:1c is depicting theos as adjectival (Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 269)

In sum, our translation which attempts to bring out the adjectival nature of theos (“fully expressive of God”) is set firmly within scholarship and is in accordance with responsible Greek grammar.