by Murray J. Harris
The theme of these [first] eighteen verses [of John’s Gospel] is the coming into the world of the pre-existent Logos as Jesus Christ, the true Light, in order to make God the Father known to humans who, by believing in Christ, become the children of God. Unlike the Gospel of Mark that begins with the testimony of John the Baptist regarding Jesus (Mark 1:1–8) or the Gospels of Matthew and Luke that commence with narratives about the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus (Matt 1:18–24; Luke 1:4–2:20), the Fourth Gospel starts with the situation before the world began, when the Logos existed in the presence of God (1:1–2).
These verses form a Prologue (rather than a preface) to the whole Gospel since they state themes that are later developed. As in the entire Gospel (see the Outline), so in the Prologue, the focus of attention is on the person and work of the Son of God (1:14–18), who is the Logos (1:1–2, 14), Jesus Christ (1:17). The following table illustrates these two points.
Can the Logos be identified with Jesus Christ? Some assert that the Logos was impersonal until the Word of God came to full expression in the historical Jesus of Nazareth, that until v. 14 John has in mind not a personal being but a personification of the Wisdom and Logos figure of pre-Christian Judaism (McHugh, for example [5, 28], renders all the personal pronouns referring to the Logos in vv. 1–13 as “it”). Now it is true that nowhere in the Prologue—not even in v. 14—is the Logos explicitly identified as Jesus Christ, who is first mentioned in v. 17, yet this identification is a necessary inference, since:
- (1) 1:18 makes the same three affirmations of Jesus Christ as 1:1 does of the Logos (viz. timeless existence, intimate relationship with God, and participation in deity).
- (2) Everywhere in the Prologue the Logos is portrayed as personal, not merely as personified. The thrice-repeated αὐτόν in 1:10–12 must refer to the Jesus of human history, whom the world of humans (κόσμος) did not recognize (1:10), whom his own people (οἱ ἴδιοι) did not accept (1:10), and whom believers (ὅσοι) did receive (1:12).
- (3) In the FG the expression πιστεύειν εἰς τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ (1:12) is always applied to belief in the historical or exalted Jesus.
Within the Prologue three verses seem to encapsulate the drama of the whole Gospel. 1:10–12 summarize the “division” (σχίσμα) over Jesus that arose because of his person (7:43), his miraculous signs (9:16), and his words (10:19), the division between those who believed (e.g., 2:11; 4:39, 41; 8:30) and those who did not believe (e.g., 6:64; 7:5; 10:25; 12:37).
Immense scholarly effort has been expended in seeking to analyze such matters as the structure, sequence of thought, original language, and background of the Prologue. But in spite of all this effort no consensus has emerged on these issues and in particular with regard to the extent of any “hymn” or hymnic material thought to be incorporated within the Prologue. Whatever may have been John’s sources for the Prologue, they cannot now be isolated, for these eighteen verses come to us as an exquisite piece of Johannine tapestry that is without clearly discernible seams. What we may say with confidence is that the prose of this passage is poetic or rhythmic, or at least elevated.
Murray J. Harris is professor emeritus of New Testament Exegesis and Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and former warden of Tyndale House in Cambridge, England.
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