Richard Burridge: John Prologue

John 1:1-1-18. The beginning of John's Gospel is one of the most magnificent passages of religious literature but is it an introduction, a prologue, an overture, a hymn or a poem? Does it end at verse 14 or 18 and should verses 6, 8 and 15 about John the Baptist be there? The argument that it is an overture is strong because it introduces many key themes which occur later but its reference to "The Word" never returns. Some argue that the passage was added later and/or that it is by a different author.

John 1:1-2. "In the beginning" reflects Genesis 1:1 and speaks of a time when only God existed. So, in the beginning was "The Word", a concept of activism in Hebrew (Isaiah 55:11) and of rational necessity in Greek philosophers from Heraclitus to the Stoics. Later Jewish belief partnered the masculine form with 'Lady Wisdom" (Proverbs 8:22-31), developed in the Apocrypha (Wisdom 7:22-10:21). John's genius was to see "The Word" not only as pre-existent but personal. He says the "Word" was with (the) God and with God; not the Word was a god or the God.

John 1:3-8. Ancient philosophy was dualist, splitting and placing the divine above the human in boundless light. The person reflected this division, living in darkness; this is why philosophers like Socrates and Plato sought "enlightenment". The soul could only "ascend" freed from the body. John has absorbed some of this Greek attitude in the light/dark contrast but his Jewishness affirms "The Word's" involvement in creation which is good. Born by a creator's love, we are free to pursue science and art, creating beauty ourselves instead of having to escape to experience it. John then introduces his twin great themes of light and life: life is found in "The Word" and his life is "the light of all people"; the presence of "The Word" is light come into darkness. The nature of God is to "send" rather than to stay aloof, so John the Baptist is sent as a witness (Martyr in Greek) to the light so that all might believe through him.

John 1:9-13. Some will believe, some not; so there is a choice to be made. Jesus is the "true light" and, rather than being ethereal, he has come to find us on earth. The Hebrew prophets looked forward to God's light coming in glory (Isaiah 9:2; 42:6; 60:1) but, says John, this light is personal. Against all philosophy, his stupendous claim is that the divine "word", the true light, has come into the world which is not negative but has the three meanings of neutral, positive and negative. The two poles are contrasted in John 1:11-12 which respectively sum up Jesus' rejection in the first half of the Gospel and the acceptance of us as children of God in the second.

John 1:14-18. "The Word became flesh" is an outrageous statement for its time, an assault on dualism/Gnosticism and an assertion that Jesus is divine but the notion that he lived among us (Eskenosen, literally "in a tent", like the sacred tabernacle) would have scandalised Jews; the Hebrew word for tent relates to the term which describes the glorious cloud of God's presence on Sinai (Exodus 24:16; 40:34-35). John does not recount the transfiguration because he sees it ambient in Jesus, in his Sonship of the Father "full of grace and truth", an assertion which combines the destruction of dualism, the anticipation of Docetism and the absorption of Judaic tradition. Returning to the beginning, Jesus has come among us so that, unlike even Moses, we may see him.

Taken from:

Burridge, Richard: John: The People's Bible Commentary, The Bible Reading Fellowship, revised 2008, ISBN 978 1 84101 570 5.


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