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Prologue (John 1:1-18)

Some have thought that the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel was composed separately by someone other than the Evangelist. The usual reasons given for seeing the Prologue as a separate composition involve the unique vocabulary it employs: lovgo" (referring to the preincarnate Logos) only in 1:1, 1:14; plhvrh", plhvrwma in 1:14, 1:16; and cavri" in 1:14, 1:16, and 1:17.

For example, R. Brown states that the Prologue is “an early Christian hymn, probably stemming from Johannine circles, which has been adapted to serve as an overture to the Gospel narrative of the career of the incarnate Word.”26

But it is more likely that it is original, because it fits so well with what follows. Why not see it as from the Evangelist himself if it comes from “Johannine circles”? [Brown may prefer the phrase “Johannine circles” because it suggests a later date, although in any case for him this composition would precede the composition of the remainder of the Gospel.]

Some have thought it should be understood as poetry. True, it can be arranged to look like verse. [So can just about any prose unit, including Eph 1:3-14]. But I have seen no two arrangements which agree, nor any one arrangement which I find particularly convincing. I think it is better to regard the prologue as elevated prose, with a meditative or reflective air about it (like much of the rest of the Fourth Gospel). But this does not make it poetry.

On the use of oJ lovgo": It is not proven beyond doubt whether the term, as John uses it, is to be derived from Jewish or Greek backgrounds or some other source. Nor is it precisely plain what the author meant by it. He does not tell us, and we are left to work out the precise allusion and significance for ourselves.

R.P. Casey states regarding the Prologue:

…the principal difficulty lies neither in its style nor in its terminology but in the fact that its author has his feet planted firmly in two worlds: that of the Old Testament and that of Hellenistic philosophy and he allows his gaze to wander easily from one to the other. At every important point he has not only two thoughts instead of one, but two sets of allusions in mind.27

Greek historical backgrounds: As a philosophical term, lovgo" meant the ‘world-soul’, the soul of the universe. This was an all-pervading principle, the rational principle of the universe. It was a creative energy. In one sense, all things came from it; in another, men derived their wisdom from it. These concepts are at least as old as Heraclitus (6th cent. BC): the lovgo" is “always existent” and “all things happen through this lovgo".28

Later Hellenistic thought: Philo of Alexandria, the Jewish philosopher of the early 1st century, frequently mentions the lovgo" (it appears over 1400 times in his writings), but he is really concerned with his Platonic distinction between this material world and the real, heavenly world of ideas. It was the Stoics who actually developed the concept of lovgo". They abandoned Plato’s heavenly archetypes in favor of the thought (closer to Heraclitus) that the Universe is pervaded by lovgo", the eternal Reason. They were convinced of the ultimate rationality of the universe, and used the term lovgo" to express this conviction. It was the ‘force’ (!) that originated and permeated and directed all things. It was the supreme governing principle of the universe. But the Stoics did not think of the lovgo" as personal, nor did they understand it as we would understand God (i.e. as a person to be worshipped).

The Evangelist, then, is using a term that would be widely recognized among the Greeks. But the ‘man in the street’ would not know its precise significance, any more than most of us would understand the terms ‘relativity’ or ‘nuclear fission’. But he would know it meant something very important.

The rest of the Fourth Gospel, however, shows little trace of acquaintance with Greek philosophy, and even less of dependence on it.

John, in his use of lovgo", is cutting across the fundamental Greek concept of the gods: they were detached, they regarded the struggles and heartaches and joys and fears of the world with serene, divine lack of feeling. John uses lovgo" to portray a God so involved, so caring, so loving and giving that he becomes incarnate within his creation.

William Barclay summarizes well:

John spoke to a world which thought of the gods in terms of passionless apatheia and serene detachment. He pointed at Jesus Christ and said: ‘Here is the mind of God; here is the expression of the thought of God; here is the lovgo". And men were confronted with a God who cared so passionately and who loved so sacrificially that His expression was Jesus Christ and His emblem a cross.29

Jewish Backgrounds: The ejn ajrch'/ of John 1:1 inevitably recalls Genesis 1:1, tyvarb. But oJ lovgo" also recalls <yhla rmayw, “and God said…” [cf. also Psalm 33:6, “By the word of Yahweh the heavens were made.”] There was also the “semi-personalization” of Wisdom in Proverbs 8:22 ff. And the Targums substitute Memra (“Word”) as an intermediary in many places: e.g. in Exod 19:17, “And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God” (MT), the Palestinian Targum reads “to meet theWord of God.” Targum Jonathan (containing the former and latter prophets, Joshua to 2 Kings plus the prophets and Daniel) uses this expression some 320 times. Some say this is not significant because Memra does not refer to a being distinct from God. It is just a way of referring to God himself. But this is the point: people familiar with the Targums were familiar with Memra as a designation for God. John does not use the term the way the Targums do, but to those familiar with the Targums it must have aroused these associations, which John would be in agreement with.30

In summary: William Temple states that the lovgo"

“alike for Jew and Gentile represents the ruling fact of the universe, and represents that fact as the self-expression of God. The Jew will remember that ‘by the Word of the Lord the heavens were made’; the Greek will think of the rational principle of which all natural laws are particular expressions. Both will agree that this Logos is the starting-point of all things.”31

John was using a term which, with various shades of meaning, was in common use everywhere. He could count on all men catching his essential meaning. But for John, the Word was not a principle, but a living Being, the source of life; not a personification, but a Person, and that Person divine.

Note: John never uses the absolute, specific, unrelated term lovgo" outside of the prologue. Elsewhere it is always modified or clarified, and does not occur in the Gospel again in the sense of the lovgo". Why not? Probably because in the Prologue we are looking at pre-existence. 1:14 becomes the point of transition: the Word is now Jesus of Nazareth. Therefore, he is called Jesus from this point on, no longer oJ lovgo". Jesus and the lovgo" are an identity; the lovgo" is the pre-existent Christ.

Strictly speaking, I would prefer not to say that John has personified the lovgo" because this implies that he borrowed the term from philosophical circles like the Stoics. Perhaps if we could ask John, he would prefer to say the philosophers had (in a sense) ‘de-personalized’ the lovgo" into a rational principle, although he really was a person (the pre-incarnate Christ) all along. That is to say, what the philosophers had grasped about the lovgo" had some elements of truth, but these were only dim and distant reflections of the pre-incarnate Christ himself. There really was a rational principle behind the universe, but until the coming of this lovgo" as Jesus of Nazareth (1:14) there was no way to know anything about him (1:18) except by natural revelation with all its limitations.

OUTLINE:

    1A The Prologue to the Gospel (1:1-18)

      1 B The Word and Creation (1:1-5)

      2 B John the Baptist’s Testimony about the Word (1:6-8)

      3 B The World’s Reaction to the Word (1:9-13)

      4 B The Church’s Confession about the Word (1:14-18)

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Barrett, C. K., The Gospel According to St. John, 2nd ed., 149-70.

Beasley-Murray, G. R., John, Word Biblical Commentary 36, 1-17.

Brown, R. E., The Gospel According to John, AB 29, 3-37.

Carson, D. A., The Gospel According to John, 111-39.

Cook, W. R., “The ‘Glory’ Motif in the Johannine Corpus,” JETS 27 (1984): 293ff.

Edwards, Ruth B., “Cavrin ajntiV cavrito" (John 1.16),” JSNT 32 (1988): 3-15.

Fennema, D. A., “John 1:18: ‘God the Only Son’,” NTS 31 (1985): 125-26.

Green, H. C., “The Composition of St. John’s Prologue,” ET 66 (1954-55): 291-94.

Haenchen, E., John 1, Hermeneia, 109-140.

King, J. S., “The Prologue to the Fourth Gospel: Some Unsolved Problems,” ET 86 (1975): 372-75.

Miller, E. L., “The Johannine Origins of the Johannine Logos,” JBL 112 (1993): 445-57.

Miller, E. L., “The New International Version on the Prologue of John,” HTR 72 (1979): 309.

Morris, L., The Gospel According to John, NICNT, 71-128.

O’Neill, J. C., “The Prologue to St. John’s Gospel,” JTS 20 (1969): 41-52.

Parker, J., “The Incarnational Christology of John,” Criswell Theological Review 3.1 (1988): 31-48.

Trudinger, L. P., “The Prologue of John’s Gospel: Its Extent, Content and Intent,” RTR 33 (1974): 11-17.

DETAILED EXEGETICAL NOTES:

    1A The Prologue to the Gospel (1:1-18)

      1 B The Word and Creation (1:1-5)

1:1 =En ajrch'/ The search for the basic “stuff” out of which things are made is the earliest one in Greek philosophy. It was attended by the related question of “What is the process by which the secondary things came out of the primary one (or ones)?,” or in Aristotelian terminology, “What is the ajrch'/ (or ajrcai) and what is the genhsin of the sunqeta?”

In the New Testament the word usually has a temporal sense, but even in BAGD the second major category of meaning listed is “the first cause.”32 For John, the words =En ajrch'/ are most likely a conscious allusion to the opening words of Genesis: in Hebrew, tyvarb. Other concepts which occur prominently in Genesis 1 are also found in the prologue: “life” (John 1:4) “light” (John 1:4) and “darkness” (John 1:5). Genesis 1 describes the first (physical) creation; John 1 describes the new (spiritual) creation. But this is not to play off a false dichotomy between “physical” and “spiritual”; the first creation was both physical and spiritual. The new creation is really a re-creation, of the spiritual (first) but also the physical. In spite of the common understanding of John’s ‘spiritual’ emphasis, we should not overlook the “physical” recreation which occurs in Chapter 2 with the changing of water into wine, in Chapter 11 with the resurrection of Lazarus, and the emphasis of Chapters 20-21 on the aftermath of Jesus’ own resurrection.

=En ajrch'/ h In the beginning, the lovgo" already was, i.e., already existed. Before the created order as we know it existed, the Word already existed. And h can certainly convey eternal pre-existence, in contrast to ejgevneto (1:3). There is a possibility of a Johannine double meaning here, since (as already mentioned) ajrch'/ can also refer to the “first cause.” Tertullian makes reference to the double meaning of ajrch'/ in the LXX of Genesis 1:1 in his Argument against Hermogenes.33

proV" toVn Qeovn The preposition prov" implies not just proximity, but intimate personal relationship. Marcus Dods states, “Prov" implies not merely existence alongside of but personal intercourse. It means more than metav or parav, and is regularly employed in expressing the presence of one person with another.”34 See also Mark 6:3, Matt 13:56, Mark 9:19, Gal 1:18, 2 John 12. A. T. Robertson says: “the literal idea comes out well, ‘face to face with God.’”35

QeoV" h oJ lovgo" See Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, for the significance of anarthrous pre-copulative predicate nominatives and a discussion of Colwell’s Rule.36 From a technical standpoint, I think it is probably preferable to see something of a qualitative aspect to anarthrous qeov". NEB has a helpful translation: “What God was, the Word was,” meaning the Word was fully deity in essence. In modern English “the Word was divine” does not quite catch the meaning; “the Word was fully God” would be more likely to convey the meaning to the average English reader.

1:3 o} gevgonen There is a major punctuation problem here: should this relative clause go with verse 3 or verse 4? The earliest manuscripts have no punctuation [66, 75*, a*, A, B, D]. Many of the later manuscripts which do have punctuation place it before the phrase, thus putting it with verse 4 [75c, C, D, L, Q, et al.]. Nestle-Aland 25th ed. placed the phrase in v. 3; Nestle-Aland 26th ed. moved the words to the beginning of v. 4.

In a detailed article Kurt Aland defends the change.37 He sought to prove that the attribution of o} gevgonen to verse 3 began to be carried out in the 4th century in the Greek church. This came out of the Arian controversy, and was intended as a safeguard for doctrine. The change was unknown in the West.

It appears to me Aland is correct in affirming that the phrase was attached to v. 4 by the Gnostics and the Eastern Church; only when the Arians began to use them were they attached to v. 3. But this does not rule out the possibility that by moving the words from v. 4 to v. 3 one is restoring the original reading.

Understanding the words as part of v. 3 is natural and adds to the emphasis which is built up there; while it also gives a terse, forceful statement in v. 4. On the other hand, taking the phrase o} gevgonen with v. 4 gives a complicated expression: Barrett says that both ways of understanding v. 4 with o} gevgonen included ‘are almost impossibly clumsy’: “That which came into being—in it the Word was life”; “That which came into being—in the Word was its life.”38

The following stylistic points should be noted in the solution of this problem:

(1) John frequently starts sentences with ejn;

(2) he repeats frequently (“nothing was created that has been created”);

(3) 5:26 and 6:53 both give a sense similar to v. 4 if it is understood without the phrase;

(4) it makes far better Johannine sense to say that in the Word was life, than to say that the created universe (what was made, o} gevgonen) was life in him.

Conclusion: The phrase is best taken with verse 3. Schnackenburg, Barrett, Carson, Haenchen, Morris, AV, and NIV concur (against Brown, Beasley-Murray, and NEB). The arguments of R. Schnackenburg are particularly persuasive.39

1:4 ejn aujtw'/ zwhV h Regarding John’s use of zwhv: John uses the term 37 times. 17 times it occurs with aijwvnio", and in the remaining occurrences outside the Prologue it is clear from context that ‘eternal’ life is meant. The 2 uses in 1:4, if they do not refer to ‘eternal’ life, would be the only exceptions.

Also (as a footnote) 1 John uses zwhv 13 times, always of ‘eternal’ life.

For the meaning of the verse we should probably turn to Psalm 36:9: “For with Thee is the fountain of life; In Thy light we see light.” In later Judaism, 1 Baruch 4:2 expresses a similar idea. Life, especially eternal life, will become one of the major themes of the gospel.

1:5 kaiV toV fjw'" ejn th'/ skotiva/ faivnei Note the change of tense. Up till now John has used past tenses (imperfect, aorist); now he switches to a present. The light continually shines. Even as the evangelist writes, it is shining. The present here has gnomic force; it expresses the timeless truth that the light of the world (cf. 8:12, 9:5, 12:46) never ceases to shine. The question of whether John has in mind here the pre-incarnate Christ or the incarnate Christ is probably too specific. The incarnation is not really introduced till 1:9, but here the point is more general: it is of the very nature of light, that it shines.

kaiV hJ skotiva aujtoV ouj katevlaben Here we are introduced to what will become a major theme of John’s Gospel: the opposition of light and darkness. The antithesis is a natural one, widespread in antiquity. Genesis 1 gives considerable emphasis to it in the account of the creation, and so do the writings of Qumran. It is the major theme of one of the most important extra-biblical documents found at Qumran, the so-called War Scroll, properly titled The War of the Sons of Light with the Sons of Darkness. Connections between John and Qumran are still an area of scholarly debate and a consensus has not yet emerged.40

katevlaben is not easy to translate. “To seize” or “to grasp” is possible, but this also permits “to grasp with the mind” in the sense of “to comprehend” (esp. in the middle voice). We are probably faced with another Johannine double meaning here, but I prefer the sense of “to overcome” rather than “to understand”: one does not usually think of Darkness as trying to understand light. For it to mean this, we must understand “darkness” as meaning “certain men,” or perhaps “mankind” at large, darkened in understanding. But in John’s usage, darkness is not normally used of men or a group of men. Rather it usually signifies the evil environment or sphere’ in which men find themselves. They loved darkness rather than light (3:19). Those who follow Jesus do not walk in darkness (8:12). They are to walk while they have light, lest the darkness “overtake”/”overcome” them (12:35, same verb as here). For John, with his set of symbols and imagery, darkness is not something which seeks to “understand/comprehend” the light, but the forces of evil which seek to “overcome/conquer” it. But they did not succeed.

      2 B John the Baptist’s Testimony about the Word (1:6-8)

1:6 =Egevneto a[nqrwpo" Note the use of givnomai rather than e[rcomai here: perhaps it would have been more natural to use hlqen (1:7). But ejgevneto in 1:3 refers to “coming into existence”—the creation. John the Baptist was a created being; there was a time when he was not. In contrast, oJ lovgo" h (1:1); there was never a “time” when the Lovgo" did not exist—-compare 1:15, where the Baptist testifies of Jesus, o{ti prw'tov" mou h .

1:7 ou|to" hlqen eij" marturivan i{na marturhvsh/Witness” is also one of the major themes of the Fourth Gospel. The verb marturevw occurs 33 times (compare to 1 time in Matthew, 1 time in Luke, 0 in Mark) and the noun marturiva 14 times (0 in Matthew, 1 time in Luke, 3 times in Mark).

      3 B The World’s Reaction to the Word (1:9-13)

1:9 ejrcovmenon eij" toVn kovsmon The participle ejrcovmenon may be either (1) neuter nominative, agreeing with toV fw'", or (2) masculine accusative, agreeing with a[nqrwpon.

(1) results in a periphrastic imperfect with h , h toV fw'"...ejrcovmenon, referring to the incarnation.

(2) would have the participle modifying a[nqrwpon and referring to the true light as enlightening “every man who comes into the world.”

(2) has some rabbinic parallels: the phrase <lwuh yab lk (“all who come into the world”) is a fairly common expression for “every man” (cf. Leviticus Rabbah 31.6).

But (1) must be preferred here, because:

  • In the next verse the light is in the world; it is logical for verse 9 to speak of its entering the world;
  • In other passages Jesus is described as “coming into the world” (6:14, 9:39, 11:27, 16:28) and in 12:46 Jesus says: ejgwV fw'" eij" toVn kovsmon ejlhvluqa;
  • Use of a periphrastic participle with the imperfect tense is Johannine style: 1:28, 2:6, 3:23, 10:40, 11:1, 13:23, 18:18 and 25. In every one of these except 13:23 the finite verb is first and separated by one or more intervening words from the participle.

In this verse we are introduced to the kovsmo" for the first time. This is another important theme word for John. Generally, kovsmo" as a Johannine concept does not refer to the totality of creation (the universe, das All) (although there are exceptions at 11:9. 17:5, 24, 21:25) but to the world of men and human affairs. Even in 1:10 the world created through the lovgo" is a world capable of knowing (or reprehensibly not knowing) its Maker.

Sometimes oJ kovsmo" is further qualified as oJ kovsmo" ou|to" (8:23, 9:39, 11:9, 12:25, 31; 13:1, 16:11, 18:36). This is not merely equivalent to the rabbinic hzh <lwuh (oJ aijwvn ou|to", “this present age”) and contrasted with the world to come. For John it is also contrasted to a world other than this one, already existing; this is the lower world, corresponding to which there is a world above (see esp. 8:23, 18:36). Jesus appears not only as the Messiah by means of whom an eschatological future is anticipated (as in the Synoptics) but also as an envoy from the heavenly world to oJ kovsmo" ou|to". This descent/ascent motif (connected to the Incarnation) will appear in the Prologue (see the chiastic arrangement for 1:1-18), again in 1:51 and as one of the themes of the remainder of the Gospel. The descent is mentioned in 3:13; the nadir (rejection by his own) in 12:37; the “ascent” is comprised of both crucifixion (predicted in 12:32) and resurrection/ascension (20:17).

1:11 oiJ i[dioi aujtoVn ouj parevlabon There is a subtle irony here: when the lovgo" came into the world, he came to his “own” (taV i[dia, literally “his own things,” a neuter form which refers to his own “home”—Israel—or to his own “things”—his messianic office) and his own people (oiJ i[dioi), who should have known and received him, but they did not. This time John does not say that “his own” did not know him, but that they did not “receive” him. (parevlabon). The idea is one not of mere recognition, but of acceptance and welcome.

1:12 toi'" pisteuvousin eij" toV o[noma aujtou' A note on John’s use of the pisteuvw + eij" construction: the verb pisteuvw occurs 98 times in John (compared to 11 times in Matthew, 14 times in Mark [including the longer ending], and 9 times in Luke). One of the unsolved mysteries is why the corresponding noun form pivsti" is never used at all. Many have held the noun was in use in some pre-Gnostic sects and this rendered it suspect for John. It might also be that for John, faith was an activity, something that men do.41

In any event, John uses pisteuvw in 4 major ways:

1. of believing facts, reports, etc., 12 times;

2. of believing people (or the Scriptures), 19 times;

3. of believing “in” Christ” (pisteuvw + eij" + acc.), 36 times;

4. used absolutely without any person or object specified, 30 times (the one remaining passage is 2:24, where Jesus refused to “trust” himself to certain men).

Of these, the most significant is the use of pisteuvw with eij" + accusative. It is not unlike the Pauline ejn Cristw'/ formula. It also appears to be a literal translation of the Hebrew ‘ b /ymah (see BDB s.v. /ma). Some have argued that this points to a Hebrew (more likely Aramaic) original behind the Fourth Gospel. But it probably indicates something else, as C. H. Dodd has observed: “pisteuvein with the dative so inevitably connoted simple credence, in the sense of an intellectual judgment, that the moral element of personal trust or reliance inherent in the Hebrew or Aramaic phrase—an element integral to the primitive Christian conception of faith in Christ—needed to be otherwise expressed.42

1:13 oujk ejx aiJmavtwn...ajll= ejk qeou' ejgennhvqhsan This describes the origin of the tevkna Qeou'—three times negatively and once positively. The plural aiJmavtwn has seemed a problem to many interpreters. At least some sources in antiquity imply that blood was thought of as being important in the development of the fetus during its time in the womb: thus Wisdom of Solomon 7:1: “in the womb of a mother I was molded into flesh, within the period of 10 months, compacted with blood, from the seed of a man and the pleasure of marriage.” In John 1:13, the plural aiJmavtwn may imply the action of both parents. It may also refer to the ‘genetic’ contribution of both parents, and so be equivalent to “human descent” (cf. BAGD s.v. aiJma.) Hoskyns thought John could not have used the singular here because Christians are in fact ‘begotten’ by the blood of Christ, although the context would seem to make it clear that the blood in question is something other than the blood of Christ.43

The next phrase, oujdeV ejk qelhvmato" sarkoV", is more clearly a reference to sexual desire, but we should note that savrx in John does not convey the evil sense common in Pauline usage. For John it refers to the physical nature in its weakness rather than in its sinfulness. I think there is no clearer confirmation of this than the immediately following verse, where the lovgo" became savrx.

The third phrase, oujdeV ejk qelhvmato" ajndroV", means much the same as the second one. The word here (ajnhr) is often used for a husband. Thus, “nor of the will of a husband.” Or more generally, “nor of any human volition whatsoever.” Morris may be right when he sees here an emphasis directed at the Jewish pride in race and patriarchal ancestry, although such a specific reference is difficult to prove.44

On the contrary, the way the tevknon Qeou' is begotten is by supernatural divine miracle. The imagery is bold because the verb gennavw is commonly used of the action of the male parent in the reproductive process.

      4 B The Church’s Confession about the Word (1:14-18)

1:14 This verse constitutes the most concise statement of the Incarnation in the New Testament. 1:1 makes it clear that the lovgo" was fully God, but 1:14 makes it clear that he was also fully human. A Docetic interpretation is completely ruled out.

Note: Here for the first time the lovgo" of 1:1 ff. is identified as Jesus of Nazareth—the two are one and the same. Thus this is the last time the word lovgo" is used in the Fourth Gospel to refer to the second Person of the Trinity. Henceforth it is Jesus who becomes the focus of the Gospel.

kaiV ejsjkhvnwsen ejn hJmi'n The verb here, together with dovxan in the following clause, makes it clear that John is alluding to the Wilderness experience of Israel. Parallels with Exodus 33 are especially numerous:

Exod 33:7

How Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp.

John 1:14

ejskhvnwsen ejn hJmi'n...

Exod 33:9

. . .the pillar of cloud would descend.

Exod 33:10

When all the people saw the pillar of cloud...[they] would arise and worship.

John 1:14

kaiV ejqeasavmeqa thVn dovxan aujtou'...

Exod 33:11

Thus Yahweh spoke to Moses face to face...

John 1:17

oJ novmo" diaV Mwu>sevw" ejdovqh...

Exod 33:20

“You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live.”

John 1:18

QeoVn oujdeiV" eJwvraken pwvpote...

Exod 33:23

“You shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen.”

John 1:18

ejkei'no" ejxhghvsato...

Some would say that John is here presenting Jesus as the new and greater Moses. I do not agree, because 1:17 makes it clear that ‘law’ came through Moses, while ‘grace and truth’ came through Jesus. More likely the allusions here are to Jesus being presented as Yahweh: it was Yahweh who dwelt in the Tabernacle; in 1:14 the lovgo" tabernacled among men. And Moses never saw God’s face (Exod 33:20) but the lovgo" resided in the bosom of the Father ‘and explained’ him. (1:18).

wJ" monogenou'" paraV patrov" “Only begotten” is a bit misleading as a translation here, since in English it appears to express a metaphysical relationship. The word in Greek was used of an only child (a son [Luke 7:12, 9:38] or a daughter [Luke 8:42]). It was also used of something unique (only one of its kind) such as the mythological Phoenix (1 Clement 25:2). From here it passes easily to a description of Isaac (Heb 11:17 and Josephus, Antiquities, I.222) who was not Abraham’s only son, but was one-of-a-kind because he was the child of the promise.

In the Johannine literature monogenh'" is only used of Jesus, and some want to see a heightened meaning like ‘begotten’ because of its proximity to the phrase ejk Qeou' ejgennhvqhsan in John 1:13. In this case it would become more or less equivalent to prwtovtoko" (Rom 8:29, Col 1:15).

It seems to me that the unique character of the relationship between Father and Son is one of the important themes of John’s Gospel which is repeatedly stressed throughout, and so the meaning ‘unique’ is perfectly adequate within the Johannine framework.

1:15 The testimony of John the Baptist: Ou|to" h is a bit unusual; we might have expected ejstin. John the Baptist may be referring back to a previous occasion when he had witnessed about Jesus; but it is also possible that this is a deliberate allusion back to 1:1 and the eternal (pre)existence of the Lovgo"—this is supported also by the case in the final clause in verse 15. This final (causal) clause is somewhat difficult in wording: literally, “because he was first of me.” Most commentators agree it should be understood as a temporal reference, “because he existed before me.” Westcott pointed out that the reference here is not merely to relative priority, but absolute priority. In other words, the lovgo" was not just “former” (prior to John the Baptist) but “first” in an absolute sense.45 We might paraphrase, “my successor has taken precedence over me, because he was [existed] prior to me [and to all else]”.

1:16 The major problems with verse 16 lie in deciding whose words they are (the Baptist’s or the writer’s) and what the sense of the phrase cavrin ajntiV cavrito" is.

Earlier commentators (including Origen and Luther) took these words to be the Baptist’s. Most modern commentators take them as the words of the writer of the Gospel. Some, indeed, see the reference to the Baptist in 1:15 as one of the rather inept ‘interpolations’ made by the gospel writer into the hymn which comprises the Prologue (1:1-18).

Z. C. Hodges took 1:15-18 as the words of the Baptist.46 The words do seem to read most naturally this way; it is only on account of the depth of this Christological insight that most today would assign them to the Evangelist. What most overlook is the ‘high’ Christological statement in 1:29, where the Baptist specifically identifies Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” That John the Baptist had prophetic insight into the Person and Ministry of Jesus is also implied in Luke 1:15-17, where he is said to come “in the spirit and power of Elijah.” If one is willing to acknowledge that the Baptist genuinely had the prophetic gift, there is nothing inherently impossible in the attribution to him of 1:15-18. In addition to the arguments in favor of this interpretation given by Hodges in his article, it seems to me that several other things favor it:

1. The absence of words like plhvrwma (1:16) and cavri" (1:16,17) later in the gospel are more readily explained if these are in fact the Baptists terms for Jesus’ ministry;

2. Knowledge of such sayings by the Baptist on the part of the gospel writer is more believable if John the Apostle were originally a follower of the Baptist; and many think he is in fact the unnamed associate of Andrew mentioned in 1:35 and 1:40;

3. 1:14 makes a very appropriate introduction to these words if they are the Baptist’s; in other words, the gospel writer introduces the earthly career of the incarnate Lovgo" in 1:14, using terminology echoed in the initial testimony of the Baptist which immediately follows (monogenhv", patrov", plhvrh", cavrito", and ajlhqeiva");

4. 1:19 is not therefore the point of transition between Prologue and gospel (as usually assumed) but represents the testimony of the Baptist about Jesus on another occasion, when he was confronted with representatives from Jerusalem.

In spite of all this, I am not convinced that 1:16-18 should be understood as a continuation of the Baptists testimony for the following reasons:

1. There is the 2nd plural ejqeasavmeqa of 1:14 (which are undoubtedly the words of the Evangelist) which fits with hJmei'" pavnte" ejlavbomen of 1:16.

2. The repetition of monogenhv" in 1:14 and 1:18, as a description of Jesus, would seem to argue that the Evangelist was responsible for both—otherwise the Evangelist would have had to have written 1:14 as a deliberate introduction to the quoted words of the Baptist—not impossible, but less likely in my judgment.

3. Perhaps most significant, if there are deliberate allusions to Exod 33 in 1:14 (as we have already discussed) and if M. Hooker is right that 1:16 is an allusion to Exod 33:13 (see below) then it seems more likely, on the whole, that the Evangelist wrote both 1:14 and 1:16 and was deliberately alluding to Exod 33 in both, than that it is merely coincidental that 1:14 and 1:16 both go back to Exod 33. (It should also be noted that verses 17 and 18 also contain references or allusions to the Old Testament, particularly Exod 33:23/John 1:18).

As for the difficult phrase cavrin ajntiV cavrito", the sense could be:

1. love/grace under the New Covenant in place of love/grace under the Sinai Covenant, thus replacement;

2. grace “on top of” grace, thus accumulation;

3. grace corresponding to grace, thus correspondence.

Probably the most commonly held view is (2) in one sense or another, and I would think this is probably the preferred explanation. This sense is supported by a fairly well-known use in Philo, On the Posterity of Cain and His Exile 145. Morna Hooker has suggested that Exod 33:13 provides the background for this expression: “How therefore, I pray Thee, if I have found cavri" (LXX) in Thy sight, let me know Thy ways, that I may know Thee, so that I may find cavri" (LXX) in Thy sight.”47 Hooker proposes that it is this idea of favor given to one who has already received favor which lies behind 1:16, and in my view this seems very probable as a good explanation of the meaning of the phrase.

1:17 The Old and the New: Whatever we make of the allusions to Exod 33 in John 1:14-18, verse 17 seems to make it clear that the Old Covenant (Sinai) is being contrasted with the New. In Jewish sources the Law was regarded as a gift from God (Josephus, Antiquities VIII. 338; Pirke Aboth 1.1; Sifre Deut. 31.4 305).48 The use of ejgevneto here (which was previously used in relation to the creative activity of the Lovgo" (1:3,10) may imply that Jesus is the Source and Creator of both cavri" and ajlhvqeia—they came into existence through him.

Note: This is the first use of the name =Ihsou" ; John uses it 237 times in all (compare 150 times in Matthew, 81 in Mark, and 89 in Luke). This is more than 25% of the NT occurrences (905 times). The compound title with Crivsto" occurs elsewhere in John only in 17:3 (though see 20:31). John uses Crivsto" alone 19 times (compared with 17 times in Matthew, 7 times in Mark, and 12 times in Luke).

1:18 Notice Qeovn is in emphatic position (as the first word in the clause). What about the Old Testament passages like Exod 24:9-11 that seem to state explicitly that some men have seen God? What John probably means here is that, in his essential being, God has never yet been seen by men. The theophanies described in the Old Testament did not and could not reveal God’s essential being. Calvin said, “When he says that no one has seen God, it is not to be understood of the outward seeing of the physical eye. He means that, since God dwells in inaccessible light, he cannot be known except in Christ, his living image.” Compare Jesus’ words in 6:46 and 14:9.

monogenhV" QeoV" (oJ monogenhV" uiJov") The textual problem is a notoriously difficult one! It appears that only one letter would have differentiated the readings in some manuscripts, since 66, one of the earliest manuscripts (2nd/3rd century), uses the abbreviation qMs; the alternative would have been uMs.49

The external evidence is difficult to evaluate objectively because it is so evenly split between Alexandrian and Byzantine readings and one’s view toward the relative importance of these two text-types will probably decide one’s evaluation of the external evidence. Internally, uiJov" fits the immediate context more readily; Qeov" is much more difficult, but also explains the origin of the other reading (uiJov") more readily, because it is difficult to see why a scribe who found uiJov" in the text he was copying would alter it to Qeov".

On the whole I do not think either reading seriously alters the meaning of the text. But I have a preference for Qeov" as the older and more difficult reading.

As for translation, I think it makes the most sense to see the word Qeov" as in apposition to monogenhv", and the participle oJ w]n as in apposition to qeov", giving in effect three descriptions of Jesus rather than only two. The modern translations which best express this are the NEB (margin), TEV, and NET:

NEB margin: “No man has ever seen God; but the only one, himself God, the nearest one to the Father’s heart, has made him known.”

TEV: “No one has ever seen God. The only One, who is what God is, and who is near the Father’s side, has made him known.”

NET: “No one has ever seen God. The only one, himself God, who is in the presence of the Father, has made God known.”

Several things should be noted: monogenhv" alone, without uiJov", can mean “only son,” “unique son,” “unique one,” etc. (see 1:14). Furthermore, Qeov" is anarthrous. As such it carries qualitative force much like it does in 1:1c, where QeoV" h oJ lovgo" means “the Word was fully God” or “the Word was fully of the essence of deity” [see above discussion under 1:1].

Finally, oJ w]n occurs in Rev 1:4, 1:8, 4:8, 11:17, and 16:5, but even more significantly in the LXX of Exod 3:14. Putting all of this together I would suggest the following translation for 1:18: “No one has seen God at any time. The unique One—fully God—the “I am” in the bosom of the Father, that One has explained him fully.”

In this final verse of the Prologue, the climactic and ultimate statement of the earthly career of the Lovgo", Jesus of Nazareth, is reached. The Unique One (cf. 1:14), the one who has taken on human form and nature (saVrx ejgevneto, 1:14), who is himself fully God (what God was, the Lovgo" was, 1:1c) and is to be identified with the Ever-living One of the Old Testament revelation (oJ w]n, Exod 3:14), who is in intimate relationship with the Father, this One and no other has fully revealed what God is like! As Jesus said to Phillip in 14:9, “The one who has seen Me has seen the Father.”


26 Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, AB 29 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966), 1 [emphasis mine].

27 R. P. Casey, Journal of Theological Studies 9 (1958): 270.

28 Frag. 1, 50, 54, 114.

29 William Barclay, Expository Times 70 (1958/59): 82.

30 For further information see Martin McNamara, “Logos of the Fourth Gospel and Memra of the Palestinian Targum, Exod 12:42” (Expository Times 79 [1967/68]: 115-17).

31 William Temple, Readings in St Johns Gospel (London: 1947), 4.

32 BAGD 112.

33 Argument against Hermogenes xix.

34 Marcus Dods, “The Gospel of St. John,” in The Expositors Greek Testament (London, 1897), 684.

35 A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the light of Historical Research (Nashville: Broadman, 1934), 623, 625.

36 Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 256-63.

37 Kurt Aland, “Eine Untersuchung zu Johannes 1, 3-4. ber die Bedeutung eines Punktes,” Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 59 (1968): 174-209.

38 C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John, 2d ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978), 157

39 Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Gospel According to St. John, trans. K. Smyth (New York: Seabury, 1980), 1:239-40.

40 See T. A. Hoffman, “1 John and the Qumran Scrolls,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 8 (1978): 177-21.

41 Cf. William Turner, “Believing and Everlasting Life—A Johannine Inquiry,” Expository Times 64 (1952/53): 50-52.

42 C. H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953), 183 [emphasis mine].

43 E. C. Hoskyns, The Fourth Gospel, 2d ed. (London: Faber & Faber, 1947), 143.

44 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 101.

45 Westcott, The Gospel According to St. John, 13.

46 Zane C. Hodges, “Problem Passages in the Gospel of John—Part 1: Grace after Grace—John 1:16,” Bibliotheca Sacra 135 (1978): 34-45.

47 Morna J. Hooker, “The Johannine Prologue and the Messianic Secret,” New Testament Studies 21 (1974/75): 53.

48 For further information see T. F. Glasson, Moses in the Fourth Gospel (London 1960).

49 The abbreviation consisted of the first and last letters of the word in the uncial script; the bar over the letters indicated that it was an abbreviation.

Related Topics: Christology, Introductions, Arguments, Outlines