Thursday, 1 May 2008

John's prologue

I've been looking at John's Prologue (1:1-18) getting ready to preach on it this Sunday. I've had one of those wonderful experiences of finding a whole new perspective on a passage that is so familiar. I'll try to outline it here, though since I am still trying to work it out, I may not be entirely clear.

I skimmed through a few commentaries yesterday evening and as I did I started to notice all the OT references. Of course I knew they were there, but this time they stood out. So many of them are about 'wisdom', for 'wisdom' is with God in the beginning (Prov 8). It is common (and convincing) to see wisdom in Prov 8 behind the "Word" of John 1. Moreover the law is the wisdom of Israel (Deut 4:6 and also the apocryphal Sir. 15:1; 19:20; 21:11; 39:8 ). 

Then I started to see a wider pattern. It is not just that there are many references to the OT. The references develop a theme. The prologue re-reads the history of Israel: the creative wisdom-word of God coming to Israel (who are the children of God). In the exodus God's glory revealed to Moses (that God is 'emet' and 'hesed' - true and gracious) and that glory settles in the tabernacle. Now the prologue announces that the true creative word of life and light has come, and allowed people from all backgrounds to become children of God and grace and truth abound from him as they never did from Moses for the reality of the temple/tabernacle has come in the word incarnate. I think in the past I'd read the prologue against the Greek idea of the logos, but the whole thing starts to have greater coherence when the main background is the story of Israel. So the prologue shows us that what we have in Jesus is the truly divine word who becomes truly human so that we may know God in his faithful and gracious glory. What was prefigured in Israel's story is true in Jesus.

In one sense this is just what John says in the rest of the gospel anyway, but I'd never quite seen it in the prologue.


Steven Coxhead said...

Yes, the Jewish background to the argument of the Apostle John and Jesus in John's Gospel is often overlooked. John's Gospel springs to life when it is read in the light of OT and Jewish theology. When Jesus, for example, says that he is "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), what does that mean in a Jewish context? When the Jews typically thought of the way, they thought of torah (Ps 119:14, 27, 32, 33, 35). When they thought of the truth, they thought of torah (Ps 119:160). When they thought about life, they also thought about torah (Deut 8:1; 30:15-16, 19-20; Ps 19:7; 119:37, 107, 156). Jesus is saying, therefore, that he is the new Torah. The logos concept in John 1 is saying the same. Jesus, the supreme word of God (John 1:18), revealed in human flesh (John 1:14). This is a revelation which fulfills and eclipses what was given to Israel through Moses. The fullness of grace and truth is revealed in the person of Jesus, something which the Mosaic law could only point to but not achieve (John 1:14, 16-17).

John Davies said...

I heartily endorse this approach. If I had to think of a single OT passage as background to the logos, it might be Deut 30 where v.14 uses the singular “word” (= commandment, v. 10) as that which is promised as being accessible to a restored Israel. This is the passage which Paul interprets Christologically in Romans 10, i.e. in Christ, the true law has come.

In more general terms, it is the Exodus-Sinai experience of Israel which is being relived in the ministry of Jesus through John’s gospel, and I would expect to find this in summary form in the prologue.

John McClean said...

Thanks John and Steve,
It seems to me that the wisdom theme is very important and that it ties together creation, torah and Israel's ongoing life. What do you think? I came across Wisdom 7 (which I know is not in our canon!) which says of wisdom "for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me. There is in her a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent, pure, and altogether subtle. For wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things. For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her. For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness. Although she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets; for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom. " (vv22-27). Sounds like John's Logos dosen't it.

I was also thinking about Isa 44 as a sample of the way the Scriptures would shape Israel's self-understanding. There Israel is to be God's own people (v2,5), who enjoy his blessing (v3), and know that he is the only Creator and are his witnesses (vv8, 23) his own people and will have is glory (v23). Meanwhile the idol worshippers do not understand and cannot see (v18). I'm not saying that John 1 alludes to Isa 44, but that Isa 44 is one version of the story of Israel which the prologue radically retells, saying that light, glory and blessing come from the Word in flesh and the 'his own' are those who believe in him, not those who come from human descent.

What do you think?

John Davies said...

Yes to all of that. I think also of a Qumran text such as 4Q185 in which Israel’s story, with particular reference to the Exodus and giving of the law, becomes the foundation for an exhortation to seek wisdom, “a way towards life, a highway [towards ...]”. What did the gap contain? Truth? Glory? We will probably never know, but both are common terms in such wisdom texts. The short text also goes on to speak of the enlightening function of wisdom, bringing an end to darkness, and of the blessedness of those to whom such wisdom is given, all concepts closely echoed in John's prologue.

I’m not suggesting John has this text before him as he writes John 1, but a quick skim of the Qumran wisdom texts is sufficient to demonstrate that we do not need to stray too far from Jewish soil, and the notion of Wisdom, grounded in God's revelation of his torah in the context of Israel's story, for an understanding of the background to the prologue (and the rest) of John’s gospel.