Prologue: The Word

The Nicene Creed has it:

“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of his Father, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten (γεννηθέντα), not made, being of one substance (ὁμοούσιον, consubstantialem, homoousios) with the Father. By whom all things were made, both which be in heaven and in earth…”?[1]

Is this what John’s prologue describes? Is the Jewish writer of John seeking here to illuminate metaphysical attributes, properly distinguishing the persons without dividing the substance and highlighting personal relationship within the eternal Godhead by distinguishing who was with and proceeds from whom? Can we even enter into a proper investigation of analysis and exegesis without understanding the poetic tone of this prologue and subsequent style of the Johannine author? There is a multitude of other literature from the same time era that gives insight into the prologue by use of structure (such as chiasms), wording (logos language), personification as well as God’s uniquely divine attributes and how they are linguistically linked to him. All these and more become relevant points of contact to see the broader picture our author desires to paint. Christian theology is prone towards tunnel vision when dealing with particular texts that affect the treatment of dogma.

Logos is the Greek word that is often translated as word, statement, account etc.

It can also be viewed as an utterance from God. In Hebrew, the word for “word” is davar

It possesses much of the same meaning as the Greek logos does and for this reason the Septuagint translates it as logos over 1200 times. Based on the evidence of its usage, it is apparent that in neither the Hebrew Scriptures, the Greek translation (LXX) or the New Testament does either of these words mean (a) “person.”

“‘Word’ is revelation, the thought of God uttered, the mighty דבר יהוה if you speak Hebrew and read the Old Testament, the λόγοϛ προϕορικόϛ if you speak Greek and read the philosophers.”[2]

The presupposed reading of “in the beginning was the Son of God”, or even “God the Son” is far too often the case. It simply doesn’t express this, implicitly or explicitly. Dr. Colin Brown of Fuller Theological Seminary stated,

“It is a common but patent misreading of the opening of John's Gospel to read it as if it said: 'In the beginning was the Son and the Son was with God and the Son was God.' What has happened here is the substitution of Son for Word, and thereby the Son is made a member of the Godhead which existed from the beginning.”

In the Gospel of John, when writing about one person next to or with another person, the writer does not use the Greek preposition pros - translated “with” in John 1:1. He does however use this proposition in John 1:1. Why? He succinctly stated that the word was “with God”, not “in the beginning was the Son of God (a person), (or God the Son) and the Son of God (a person) was with God (another person).” This locution is also exhibited in other texts dealings with the same “word”.

In Acts (10:34-38) after Peter’s vision and journey to see Cornelius, he tells him:

“‘I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him. ‘The word [λόγον] which He [God] sent to the sons of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ (He is Lord of all)--you yourselves know the thing which took place throughout all Judea, starting from Galilee, after the baptism which John proclaimed. ‘You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him.”

Being anointed by God and being sent preaching by God is equated by Peter with “the word”; “the word God sent through Jesus”. The “word” is not Jesus in any way other than that which came through him from God, the embodiment of God’s message.

John 1 makes no connection with Jesus until verse 14. The word of God is never a distinct or separate person from the Father, it rather communicates the Father’s activity. James Dunn in his Christological work writes,

“The conclusion which seems to emerge from our analysis thus far is that it is only with v. 14 that we can begin to speak of the personal Logos...Prior to v. 14...we are dealing with personifications rather than persons, personified actions of God rather than an individual divine being as such. The point is obscured by the fact that we have to translate the masculine Logos as ‘he’ throughout the poem. But if we translate the masculine Logos as ‘God’s utterance’ instead, it would become clearer that the poem did not necessarily intend the Logos in vv. 1-13 to be thought of as a personal divine being. In other words, the revolutionary significance of v. 14 may well be that it marks...the transition from impersonal personification to actual person. This indeed is the astounding nature of the poem’s claim. If it had asserted simply that an individual divine being had become man, that would have raised fewer eyebrows. It is the fact that the Logos poet has taken language which any thoughtful Jew would recognize to be the language of personification and has identified it with a particular person, as a particular person, that would be astonishing: the manifestation of God become a man! God’s utterance not merely come through a particular individual, but actually become that one person, Jesus of Nazareth!”[4]

It is the logos (word) in John’s prologue that finds expression and fulfillment (becoming flesh, manifested) in Jesus of Nazareth, who was born to Mary, not the logos born and assuming flesh as a pre-existent entity. The logos was always with God, in this way of speaking, but does not mean Jesus of Nazareth was.

In Hebraic literature, personifications are a common occurrence. For example, just as word is personified, so also in Proverbs 8 is wisdom and prudence. Jesus even personifies wisdom in Luke 11:49,

“the wisdom of God said: I sent them prophets and emissaries, yet they murdered some and persecuted others.”

The Hebrew davar has not only a Greek equivalent, but an Aramaic one as well. The Aramaic word memra provides insight into what we call “word”. In the world of Jewish exegetes and commentators is a collection of mostly Aramaic interpretive renderings[5] or translations of the Hebrew Scriptures[6] called targumim (targum for singular, with a basic meaning of “to explain” and “to translate”). They were translations and interpretations from the second temple period that would render Hebrew into the tongue of the day. These provide us insight as to why the Johannine author used “word” in the way he did. “Word” or memra was used to denote God’s action and utterance, not his “person.”

Memra is the most common designation for God’s action in the Targums.

“‘The Memra of the Lord’…is found 314 times in Nf [Neofiti] and 636 times in Nfmg [Neofiti marginal gloss]; in Frg. Tgs. [fragment targum(s)]. About 99 times; in CTg [Cairo Genizah (Pal.) Tg. manuscript] text 97 times…in Onq [Onqelos] 178 times and 322 in Ps.-J [Pseudo Jonathan]…”[7]

Here are some examples:

Gen 1:3 “the word of the Lord said: Let there be light, and there was light according to the decree of his word…” Targum Neofiti

“Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light.” NASB

1:27 “the word of the Lord created man in His likeness, in the likeness of the presence of the Lord He created him” Targum Yerushalmi

“God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him;” NASB
2:2 “…the word of the Lord completed…” Targum Neofiti
“God completed His work which He had done” NASB

2:3 “…the word of the Lord blessed…” Targum Neofiti

“God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it” NASB

2:8 “a garden from the Eden of the just was planted by the word of the Lord God” Targum Pseudo Jonathan

“The LORD God planted a garden toward the east” NASB

3:8 “The voice of thy word heard I in the garden…” Targum Onkelos

"I heard the sound of You in the garden” NASB

5:2 “Male and female He created them, and blessed them in the name of His word;” Targum Pseudo Jonathan

“He created them male and female, and He blessed them” NASB

15:6 “Abram believed in the name of the word of the LORD.” Targum Neofiti

“Then he believed in the LORD” NASB

Ex. 6:7 “…I will be to them my word, a redeemer God…” Targum Neofiti

“'Then I will take you for My people, and I will be your God” NASB

19:17 “Mosheh led forth the people out of the camp to meet the word of the Lord” Targum Onkelos

“Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God” NASB

The logos of the prologue is often interpreted metaphysically for the sake of bolstering the personal preexistence of Jesus as an eternally generated deity who shares ontological identity with “God.” Hypostasis, ontology, substance, essence and consubstantiality are not in John’s vocabulary.

Professor David Flusser wrote,

“The famous prologue to John’s Gospel (1:3) states that ‘through him (the Word) everything came to be: no single thing was created without him’. The weight of this statement is well known, but it is less known that the verse repeats, even in its wording, a Jewish commonplace. We read in the book of Jubilees that God ‘has created everything by His word’ (12:4), and so it is also said in Wisdom of Solomon 9:1. Even more similar to John’s prologue is the wording of two sentences in the Dead Sea Scrolls: ‘By His (God’s) knowledge everything came to be, and everything which is happening – He establishes it by his design and without Him [nothing] is done’ (1QS XI:11). ‘By the wisdom of Thy knowledge Thou didst establish their destiny ere they came into being, and according to [Thy will (word)] everything came to be, and without Thee [nothing] is done’ (1QS I:19-20).[8] The two kindred sentences in the Scrolls stress the sectarian doctrine of predestination and not the hypostatic aspect of knowledge and wisdom, by which everything came to be…Another witness for the Jewish roots of Jn 1:3 is the benediction ‘that everything became to be through His word’ (m. Ber. VI: 2-3). This benediction is said by the Jews before eating a thing for which no special benediction is prescribed. Thus, the accent is on the word ‘everything’. In the benediction the meaning of the theologoumenon was weakened, because it was secondarily adapted for a new purpose. But even if you put the stress upon the word ‘everything’ in a more theological context, the meaning of the phrase is not hypostatic: through the creation everything came to be and no single thing was created without God…[Jn 1:3 can be] ambiguous…in its various connotations, not only in Jewish thought, but also in the New Testament. A false, anachronistic and inadequate interpretation is liable to miss the point and cause confusion.”[9]

I will conclude with a statement from Church historian Adolf Harnack,

“The Messiah is the beginning, purpose and principle of the creation. The Greeks, as the result of their cosmological interest, embraced this thought as a fundamental proposition. The complete Greek Christology then is expressed as follows: ‘Christ who saved us, being first spirit and the beginning of all creation became flesh.’ That is the fundamental, theological and philosophical creed on which the whole Trinitarian and Christological speculations of the Church of the succeeding centuries are built, and it is thus the root of the orthodox system of dogmatics...With this transition the theories concerning Christ are removed from Jewish and Old Testament soil...and transplanted to the Greek one...The appearance of Christ is now an ‘assumption of flesh,’ and immediately the intricate questions about the connection of the heavenly and spiritual being with the flesh simultaneously arise...But the flesh, that is the human nature created by God, appears depreciated, because it was reckoned as something unsuitable for Christ, and foreign to him as a spiritual being. Thus the Christian religion was mixed up with the refined asceticism of a perishing civilization, and a foreign substructure given to its system of morality, so earnest in its simplicity...
[The Logos] was transformed into a cosmic force and thereby secularised.”

In his footnotes to page 329 he states:

“If we only possessed the prologue to the Gospel of John with its “ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος” [in the beginning was the word] the “πάντα δι᾽ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο” [everything through it came into existence] and the “ὁ λόγος σάρξ ἐγένετο” [the word became flesh] we could indeed point to nothing but Hellenic ideas. But the Gospel itself, as is well known, contains very much that must have astonished a Greek, and is opposed to the philosophical idea of the Logos. This occurs even in the thought, “ὁ λόγος σάρξ ἐγένετο,” [the word became flesh] which in itself is foreign to the Logos conception…the notion of the incarnate Logos is by no means the dominant one here. Though faint echoes of this idea may possibly be met with here and there in the Gospel—I confess I do not notice them—the predominating thought is essentially the conception of Christ as the Son of God, who obediently executes what the Father has shewn and appointed him. The works which he does are allotted to him, and he performs them in the strength of the Father. The whole of Christ’s farewell discourses and the intercessory prayer evince no Hellenic influence and no cosmological speculation whatever, but shew the inner life of a man who knows himself to be one with God to a greater extent than any before him, and who feels the leading of men to God to be the task he had received and accomplished.” [10]

End Notes:
[1] Philip Schaff, “The First Ecumenical Council: The First Council of Nice”, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series: The Seven Ecumenical Councils, 14 vols. (Edinburgh, T & T Clark, 1997), 14:3.
[2] C.K. Barrett, Essays on John (London: SPCK, 1982), 78.
[3] Colin Brown, “Trinity and Incarnation: In Search of Contemporary Orthodoxy,” Ex Auditu, vol. 7, (1991), 88-89.
[4] James D.G. Dunn, Christology in the Making, A New Testament Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation, 2d ed. (SCM Press, 1989, 2003), 243.
[5] Technically it could be from Hebrew into any other language (e.g. Greek), but especially into Aramaic.
[6] The exceptions are Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel.
[7] Martin McNamara, The Aramaic Bible, Vol. 1A, Targum Neofiti 1: Genesis, 22 vols. (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1992), 1:37-38.
[8] Flusser footnotes here, “on the ground of the two similar sentences in the DSS, one may venture the guess that in Jn 1:3 ‘through him’ means the Word, and ‘without him’ means God’”
[9] David Flusser, “Messianology and Christology,” Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (JOC) (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, Hebrew University, 1988), 267-268.
[10] Adolf Von Harnack, History of Dogma, 7 vols. (London: Williams and Norgate, 1894, repub. HardPress Publishing), 1:328-330.

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