In the Beginning

Opening reflections on John’s Gospel (2001)

In the beginning the Word already was. The Word was in God’s presence, and what God was, the Word was. He was with God at the beginning, and through him all things came to be…

It is all too easy to read this and think that it is speaking of the first and second Persons of the Trinity. It is, however, difficult to accept that the writer of this Gospel had worked up a doctrine of the Trinity. Emil Brunner (Dogmatics, vol.1, p.205) says, ‘we must honestly admit that the doctrine of the Trinity did not form part of the early Christian (New Testament) message … it cannot be denied that not only the word ‘Trinity’, but even the explicit idea of the Trinity is absent from the apostolic witness to the faith.’ ‘It was never the intention of the original witnesses to Christ in the New Testament to set before us an intellectual problem — that of the Three Divine Persons — and then to tell us to silently worship this mystery of the ‘Three-in-One’. There is no trace of such an idea in the New Testament … the fact that God is Three and yet One lies wholly outside the message of the Bible. It is a mystery which the Church places before the faithful in her theology, by which she hampers and hinders their faith with a heteronomy [opposite of autonomy and, in Kant’s philosophy, directed to an end, other than duty, for its own sake] which is in harmony, it is true, with a false claim to authority, but which has no connexion with the message of Jesus and His Apostles. No Apostle would have dreamt of thinking that there are Three Divine Persons, whose mutual relations and paradoxical unity are beyond our understanding.’ (p.226)

So what is John saying? Bishop Westcott (John, p.xvi) draws attention to the Jewish Targum (paraphrases of the OT) which uses ‘a person’s word’ as another way of saying him/herself — ‘The ‘word’ is in fact the active expression of the rational character, and so may well stand for the person from whom it issues. As applied to God, the term was free from any rude anthropomorphism, while it preserved the reality of a divine fellowship for [wo]man.’ ‘The Evangelist, trusting firmly to the ethical basis of Judaism, sets forth the Logos mainly as the revealer of God [God reveals Godself through the Word, as Karl Barth might (not quite) have said] to [wo]man, through creation, through theophanies, through prophets, through the Incarnation.’ (p.xviii) It is through the Incarnation that we understand the Word but only because God’s Word tells us that incarnation is the ultimate self-expression of God. The ‘doctrine of the Logos’ is ‘intelligible as the final coordination through facts of different modes of thought as to the divine Being and the divine action, which are contained in the OT.’ (p.xviii) This development required the genius and reflection of Paul and John on the exalted Christ. Once this stage of development was reached it was appropriate to use the thinking to provide an introduction and explanation of the origin/person of Jesus, but not the Jesus of Nazareth of the synoptic Gospels? We have moved on from the ‘historical Jesus’. In the commentary proper Westcott says, ‘The term logos never has the sense of reason in the NT. The theological use of the term appears to be derived from the [Hebraic] memra, and not from the Alexandrine logos.’

The Word was in God’s presence, and what God was, the Word was. God is expressed in the Word, the Word expresses God. Westcott’s interpretation is unashamedly Trinitarian, he rejects some potential interpretations precisely because they are heretical. Does the logic of an incarnation (and the assumptions wrapped up in it) force the idea of the pre-existence of a ‘Person’ equal to God? Are we on safe ground trying to explain the Incarnation (an explanation is not attempted, or even considered?, in Mk; Matt. and Lk. seem to tie it in with a ‘mythical’ virginal conception), making a Trinitarian doctrine which depends on it even more dubious? Paul builds a similar theology in Philippians 2.6, he was in the form of God, and Paul’s ideas fit very well with John’s. Yet, unless this theological attempt is made Jesus becomes just another prophet(?). Would John have had a problem with Mk.’s gospel (Adoptionist?)?

That life was the light of [hu]mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never mastered it. The themes of life, light and darkness run through the whole Gospel as does the ‘world’ which appears in the next verse. The author is very pessimistic about the world and its associated darkness. John the Baptist is associated with the light in words that do not appear in the other Gospels. Yet, having introduced him the author continues to describe the Word.

So the Word became flesh … and we saw his glory, such glory as befits the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. Westcott says that ‘the fact of the miraculous Conception, though not stated, is necessarily [?] implied by the Evangelist. The coming of the Word into flesh is presented as a creative act.’ It is better to say that the miraculous conception is not stated. Can we fit the virginal conception into John’s ‘the word became flesh’? John doesn’t mention the involvement of the Spirit in this process. Or can we say that John does not use the virginal conception story because he neither knew it nor needed it? Westcott also suggests that So the Word takes us back to v.1 — ‘all that has intervened is in one sense parenthetical. The Incarnation presupposes and interprets the Creation and the later history of [hu]man[kind], and of [hu]man[ity]’s relation to God.’ Moving on he says ‘the word became must not be so understood as to support the belief that the Word ceased to be what he was before; and the word flesh must not be taken to exclude the rational soul of man.’ He states that we must understand this from the ‘two natures’ standpoint, we must not follow any of the heresies that have emerged.

We saw his glory — (Westcott) ‘while the appearance of the Lord was in humility, yet even under the limitations of His human form, those who looked patiently could see the tokens of the divine revelation made through him … [yet] even so Christ’s glory flashed forth at crises in his history.’ In the synoptics his glory (or authority) is recognised by ‘demons’ and by his followers in some of the miracle stories. It is only truly revealed/beheld at the Transfiguration (which does not appear in John, Jesus is portrayed as Son of God from the beginning and does not need to be, in fact, cannot be transfigured). Is there a tendency for the gospel writers to bring forward the proof of Jesus’ status (only truly revealed at the Resurrection) ever forward in their accounts? Many scholars have said that the transfiguration is actually a transposed Resurrection story. Did the Transfiguration really happen in Jesus’ ministry before his crucifixion? Can we accept this level of editing in the Gospels?

This is the man of whom I said, “He comes after me, but ranks ahead of me”; before I was born, he already was.’ This is almost a commentary, in the mouth of John the Baptist, on what we read in the Synoptics. The ideas are, however, completely new. It is interesting to note that John the Baptist is clued in to Jesus being the pre-existent Word. Can we accept, given the ‘evidence’ of the Synoptics, that this accurately reflects the contemporary understanding of John the Baptist? The idea of ‘fulness’ (from his full store) is a Pauline theme (For in him God in all his fullness chose [?] to dwell, Col.1.19; For it is in Christ that the Godhead in all its fullness dwells embodied, 2.9).

No one has ever seen God [despite Moses’ and Isaiah’s experiences]; God’s only Son, he who is nearest to the Father’s heart, has made him known. (Westcott) ‘The word Son — ‘only begotten Son — carries with it the idea of identity of essence’. The revelation is of the Father this ‘serves to mark the limits of the revelation made through Christ … The Son made God known not primarily as God, but as the Father … [‘Son’ marks] a relation apprehended with regard to creation [hence the Christological difficulties for the early church, all sons are created] … the form of expression is borrowed from human affection [in actual terms God does not have a Son, God is God]’ (Westcott). This also illustrates the subordination of the Son to the Father, another Pauline theme (also present in the Synoptics). What do we mean when we say ‘Son of God’? Do we recognise that this is just a way of speaking which is useful for us, rather than reflecting God as God really is?

A deputation of priests and Levites [were sent] to ask him [John] who he was — The characters are different but this reminds us of Jesus asking, Tell me, who do people say I am? (Mk. 8.27, Mt.16.13, Lk.9.18) Was Jesus that interested in who people thought he was? Is this an opportunity for the Gospel writers to put a statement into the mouth of one of Jesus’ eyewitnesses? There is no place in John for Peter’s confession, that is the prerogative, firstly of John the Baptist and then of Nathanael (the Synoptic Bartholomew?). Does this point to the rivalry between Petrine and Johannine Gospels? There could be two separate traditions one around Jesus/Peter and the other around John and religious leaders. Generally, however it is accepted that the Synoptic material is earlier, John is less historical and that his Gospel is a radical reworking of the Jesus story (where it has any connection with Synoptic events/sayings). Note, in support of this, the common sequence — Elijah, one of the prophets. There is another contrast with the Synoptics in that John denies that he is Elijah, while the Synoptic Jesus says John is the destined Elijah, if you will but accept it (Mt.11.14) and Lk. says, he will [be] possessed by the spirit and power of Elijah (1.17). Note also that in John there is no direct contact between John the Baptist and Jesus, John is not even reported as baptising him, he is a remote and reflective eye-witness. However, it is John rather than the author (as in the other Gospels) who introduces the supporting quotation from Isaiah.

There is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world — Again we have material which appears much later in the Synoptics, compare Mt. 26.28 the blood of the covenant, shed for many for the forgiveness of sins, and in the mouth of John the Baptist too. Yet, In Lk.7.19 we read that John the Baptist sent his disciples to ask Are you the one who is to come, or are we to expect someone else? [perhaps not expecting the Messiah to have a healing ministry?]. Also can we imagine the Synoptic Jesus saying this (Lk.7.28) of the man who, in John’s Gospel, has the deepest understanding of Jesus’ role — the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he is? The Jesus Seminar in the Acts of Jesus quote ‘so conservative a commentator as Raymond E. Brown [who] conclude[s] that “we cannot treat John 1:35–51 as historical narrative.”’

Yet, we read, I did not know him. Luke tells us that Jesus and John the Baptist were cousins. Did God have an unusual interest in this family? Or did it just make a good story? It may be possible to accept that John and Jesus never met, John’s family lived in Judea. It is likely that John would have recognised Jesus as a kinsman, even if he did not know him (see the story of Ruth). Or is he saying that although he knew Jesus he did not know him as the Lamb of God [despite the story provided by Luke]?

I saw the spirit come down from heaven like a dove and come to rest on him. I did not know him — We have come a long way from Mark where Jesus responds to John’s message and is baptised, and from Matthew (where John recognises Jesus before his baptism), and from Luke where Jesus is baptised but John’s involvement is only implicit. In this Gospel it is implicit at best that Jesus has been baptised. Common elements are present in each story but each writer shapes the material differently. Is John’s account so different because there is no point at all in Jesus receiving baptism [and in this Gospel it is not even described as a baptism of repentance]? Is it John who receives the message that Jesus is the Son of God because Jesus has no need of such knowledge? John is also the only Gospel not to have an account of the Temptation (which appears in all of the Synoptics). John’s Jesus is untemptable, he has no difficulties with Satan and never rebukes Peter, although Satan is troubling the disciples or influences events as the ‘ruler of this world’. Westcott rules out any heresy once again, ‘the narratives of this event lend no support to the Ebionite view that the Holy Spirit was first imparted to Christ at his baptism; or to the Gnostic view that the Logos was then united to the man Jesus … We could not, without destroying the essential idea of the Christian faith, suppose that the Spirit was made flesh or that the Word descended upon Christ.’

It is important for the author that John the Baptist should identify Jesus and also that one of the first disciples recognises Jesus at this early stage — Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are the king of Israel. Divinity, death, resurrection are all signposted at the beginning of the Gospel (1.51, 2.21,22, 3.14). The end-point of the other Gospels becomes John’s starting-point.