READING JOHN: In the beginning … 1:1-18

After a few months of R&R to recuperate from puzzling our way through Mark, the Renegades take a deep breath and plunge into the theological ocean of John’s gospel. A couple of us come at it with a certain affection for the heterodox notion that John pre-dates Mark and the other synoptics. But we’ll keep an open mind about that and see what impression emerges as we read in our signature spirit—trying to imagine what it would be like to confront this baffling text for the first time …

John the Evangelist, Book of Kells

John the Evangelist, Book of Kells

rick pacific crop 3RICHARD McKIM   12/5/13
Maybe a good place to start talking about John is by trying to translate the great exordium, 1:1-5. If we don’t know what he’s saying there — and who does? — it’ll be hard to figure out where this strangest of gospels is coming from. One thing, at least, I know for sure: I want some of what he’s smoking!

So I’m kicking things off, inviting protest and risking ridicule with a provisional draft of the first five verses. I’m at the disadvantage of not having seen Bill’s version — which I’m bracing for! I’ve left logos untranslated so as not to prejudge it.

In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was next to God and the logos was in fact God. This logos was next to God in the beginning. Everything came about on account of it, and not a single thing that has come about came about without it. In the logos was life, the life that was the light of humankind. And the light appears in the darkness, and the darkness could not suppress it. 

Among many puzzles, the prepositional phrase pros ton theon (“next to God”) bedevils me. The traditional “with God” seems a bit of a cop-out. In LSJ for pros with accusative I find a range of senses clustered around “comparable to”, as well as the basic “towards”, “near to”, “in reference or proportion to”, “before” (as, a magistrate) etc. “Next to” shares some of the same ambiguity. But what the hell does he mean? “Nearly the same as”?? And what’s with the seemingly pointless repetition in the second sentence? Best I can think of is an implied opposition — the logos was God “(but) in the beginning it was (merely) next to God”. I’ve tried to imply this by reversing the Greek order of the phrases: “was next to God in the beginning (as opposed to later).” Does this make any sense?

I’ve tried “it” instead of “him” because the masculine pronouns houtos and autos seem merely to correspond to the masculine logos without (yet) entailing a masculine person. I don’t see much justification for the traditional “comprehended” (katelaben), as in “the darkness comprehended it not”. “Suppressed” seems better attested, at least classically, and “could not suppress it” seems more to the point. I’ve stolen “come about” from Lattimore because it feels about right. “Come into being” might be more precise, but a bit clumsy with all the repetition.

“And the logos was in fact God” — “in fact” to capture what I take to be the emphasis on “was” (ἦν) created by the word order καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.

There seems to be a scholarly fuss about ho gegonen (“that has come about”) in 1.3, but I don’t see the objection to taking it with what comes before, as KJV has it (“without him was not anything made that was made”, or words to that effect). Lattimore and others take it with what follows, producing something like “What came about was life”, which seems lame to me. All that said, my translation is probably ghastly. Fire away!

bill berg photo crop 1WILLIAM BERG
No, no, Rick, your translation isn’t ghastly at all. What’s often ghastly is John’s Greek, and I join you in wondering what he’s really up to. At any rate, yours is quite smooth and palatable compared with mine (not to be taken too seriously, just a draft):

In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. That word was there in the beginning with God. Through that word, everything came to be; without him there came to be not a single thing that has come to be. In him was life, and that life was the light of humankind. That light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overwhelmed it.

An alternate version of 1:3-4, with equally ancient sources: Through that word, everything came to be; without him there came to be not a single thing. What came to be in him was life, and that life has been the light of humankind.

I, too, once publicly held out against translating pros as “with,” and I still bear the scars of that encounter. Turns out that it certainly can mean “with” in koinē  (ordinary vernacular Greek spoken worldwide in the centuries following Alexander’s conquests). Blass affirms this in his Grammar of New Testament Greek (Thackeray’s 1911 translation), p. 139.

Initial letter of Genesis, Wenceslas Bible, Prague, 14thC

Initial letter of Genesis, Wenceslas Bible, Prague, 14thC

One thing seems clear: the Old Testament is hovering there in the background, and might provide some hints. Right off the bat, of course, we have with ἐν ἀρχῇ (“in the beginning”) an echo of the first two words of Genesis: Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἐποίησεν ὁ Θεὸς τὸν οὐρανὸν καὶ τὴν γῆν. And your remarks on what follows — “(seemingly pointless) repetition,” “implied opposition” — may be more significant than you intended.  There seems to me to be a sort of exchange reminiscent of strophe-antistrophe, before the actual epeisodion begins at 1.19. I seem to hear different voices responding to one another in 1-5, then 6-14, then 15, then 16-17, finally 18. Could these be different “hands” intruding on one another in the Johannine tradition? Or might they reflect a practice in the Hebrew literary tradition, psalmodic or otherwise? In other words, do the repetition and opposition reflect a traditional form to which John thinks he’s adhering, and which he believes to be appropriate to the theme he’s about to undertake?

I checked out the kerfuffle you incited about pros and am less than convinced by the traditionalists’ catalog of examples, in many of which the word could mean primarily “before” or “in the presence of”. It may be splitting hairs to think that’s somehow different from “with”, but now I find myself even more drawn to the “comparable to” idea, which nobody seems to entertain. The logos was very much like God, nearly the same as … no, he WAS God!

I’m excited, Bill, by your suggestion of a kind of antiphonal call-and-response. Maybe the point is, both voices speak the truth. The logos is both different from AND (kai) the same as God (hence the parataxis kai…kai…kai). Trinitarianism here we come — my favorite Christian dogma, so I’m prejudiced.

Heraclitus the Weeping  Philosopher, Johannes Moreelse, 17thC

Heraclitus the Weeping Philosopher, Johannes Moreelse, 17thC

Even more fundamental than pros, why does everyone just assume that logos means Word? What about the Heraclitean sense — the order and unity of the universe — which rings down the ages through Plato etc.? Seems to me more natural to take it that way.

You & I are riding the same bus here, Rick. John’s logos (Hebrew memra) always made me think (irrelevantly, I supposed) of his fellow Ephesian (give or take a few centuries) Heraclitus. Turns out there actually might be a connection, if we can trust John’s and Jesus’ contemporary Philo.

Wow!  Rich stuff only five short verses in. Some thoughts:

ΠΡΟΣ: I prefer “near” or some such but I don’t know how everyday Greek at the time used related prepositions like ΣΥΝ and ΜΕΤΑ. Following Matthew 13:56 maybe pros could mean “living next door / right around / being near by” but not (I think) “acting along with”.  That is too easy. It makes the Logos a co-worker, hired hand, subordinate. Nope! God was this logos. But, John, didn’t you just say the logos was pros ton theon? Yup, and I will say it again in verse 2 for you, so you can’t wiggle out of the paradox.  God was the Logos, but the Logos was also in some way differentiated from God. Keep the paradox, don’t minimize it.

Houtos (“this one”) sounds funny, Rick, as a way of referring to an abstract noun antecedent. It feels personal to me. Time to start capitalizing Logos? Time to wonder what a personified, all-creating speech act would be in a form we could comprehend? Like in a body!

Κatelabe (KJV “comprehended”). I like Rick’s “could not suppress it.” The Greek is a very physical word, but with a metaphorical extension that takes over in modern times, where my most-used phrase as a tourist is δεν κατάλαβα: “I didn’t understand.” But that can’t be it here. It has to be physical, going along with the incipient personification. Is it a wrestling term, “throw it to the ground,” “pin it down”? Or per LSJ I.2 “wear it out,” “exhaust it”?

Or “overwhelm it.” I translate “has not overwhelmed it” not just because the present perfect seems to make OK sense in the context, but because I’ve gotten used to the way the aorist is so often used in the NT like our perfect — especially when, as here, the lead sentence is in the present tense. It was one of the many things I had to learn about the sometimes appalling differences between Attic and koinē Greek. I see that Blumczynski gives us the heads-up on this point, for example translating ὁ ἀδελφός σου οὗτος νεκρὸς ἦν καὶ ἔζησεν as “this brother of yours was dead and has come to life” (Luke 15:32) In my experience there are many, many such examples throughout the NT.

Jesus with the Word, Chora Monastery, Turkey, 14thC

Jesus with the Word, Chora Monastery, Turkey, 14thC

“Overwhelm” versus “suppress” is perhaps a matter of taste, as long as we’re agreed that “comprehended it not” is off the mark. It’s not that the darkness was befuddled by the light, but that it tried to keep light under wraps and failed. The tense issue doesn’t seem significant to me. Present perfect for κατέλαβε fits nicely with the present φαίνει: “the light appears (now and forever) and the darkness has not overwhelmed it”. But so does the simple past: “and the darkness could not suppress it.” Similarly, for what it’s worth, I think your Blumczynski example, “he was dead and has come to life,” could just as well be translated “came to life”. The bottom line may be merely that the aorist has a vagueness about it that encompasses both English tenses. We have to choose, but it’s not a life-or-death decision.

Bob, who advocates “acting along with” for pros? Over-translation! But whatever pros means, the main thing is the paradox that Bob zeroes in on: the logos is the same as God, but different. This is the kernel of Trinitarianism and, to me, the genius of Christianity — insist on monotheism, but preserve the grain of truth in polytheism, that God manifests in multiple aspects, IS also multiple, logic be damned.

Lack of logic returns us to logos. LSJ does attest that the neuter touto can refer to a masc/fem object or concept as antecedent, but it also documents houtos/haute doing that job. There’s enough proximity here, pulling the pronoun into the masculine, that I feel free to differ with Bob’s feeling that houtos must be personal, at least if “person” means a human individual. Would John flat-out identify the logos with the fleshly person Jesus? We’ll see. Still, there’s no doubt a strong pull to conceive of the logos as a person as in “person of the Trinity”.

In any case, “Word” seems too narrow to me. This is exalted God-talk we’re dealing with. The logos just might be a person. But an utterance? I’m rooting with Bill for it to be the Heraclitean organizing principle of the universe, the essence of all paradox but also the essence of Reason, per the weeping philosopher.

CONNOR  12/8/13
Rick, as for “Bob’s feeling that houtos must be personal” — not quite. I think John is teasing his readers a bit. We’re wondering, what is this logos-thing? And houtos introduces not a “must be” but a “may be”. Could it be personal, human even? this Jesus everyone is talking about? It intensifies the puzzlement, deliberately I suspect.

God as speech act: I asked my friend Billy Yeats about that and he said he had long had a similar problem. Then he went into one of his rants, you know the way he is:

O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance.

So how, he asked,  could I hope to distinguish God from that Utterance, Let there be light? All this pushes me to the question: What kind of reader do I want to be? Open to paradox, patient in waiting for its resolution, ready to be surprised, but suspecting that the solution to a riddle is likely to come from inside the text, not outside it. So I am going to make Heraclitus, Plato, Philo wait. But maybe not some Zen friends.

I, too, am ready to wait, if need be forever, for the solution to come out of the text, but at the same time I feel a sense of urgency, since the train of narrative is leaving the station at verse 19, and we’ll never see this exordium again. Different themes, maybe different author(s) coming up.

Let’s pause just a moment to consider a few phrases from Philo’s On the Confusion of Languages: “The image of God is the most ancient logos.” “His first-born logos, the eldest of the angels.” We are “children of God’s eternal image, the most sacred logos ” (παῖδες … τῆς ἀειδοῦς εἰκόνος αὐτοῦ, λόγου τοῦ ἱερωτάτου), which is “human in form” (ὁ κατ’ εἰκόνα ἄνθρωπος; compare καὶ ὁ λόγος σάρξ ἐγένετο, and 2 Corinthians 4:4 τοῦ Χριστοῦ, ὅς ἐστιν εἰκὼν τοῦ Θεοῦ, “of the anointed King who is the image of God”; also Colossians 1:15-17).

Do we find these characterizations of the memrah, the divine Utterance, as confusing and contradictory as John 1? Or can we gradually get used to thinking that way, thinking about God and man the way an educated first-century Jew would think? Does Philo bring us any closer to an understanding of pros ton theon ? “And the logos was before the face of God”? “And the logos was the mirror-image of God”? Do these descriptions of the logos put it in the same transcendent league as Heraclitus’ logos?  Or are we dealing with apples and oranges? OK, Bob, now bring on the Zen masters!

Vitruvian man,  Leonardo da Vinci, 15thC

Vitruvian man, Leonardo da Vinci, 15thC

Intriguing translations, Bill, prompted by a very a propos text — though I find Philo more unreadable than enlightening! Makes me wonder whether “an educated first-century Jew” could have any clearer notion of John’s logos than we do. “Word” seems an arbitrary translation for logos in Philo’s phrases. It makes more sense to me to say that we human beings are “the children of God’s eternal image” if the image (logos) we resemble is the cosmic order of all things — think Leonardo’s spreadeagled Man — rather than a “Word”. What word? And how can we resemble an utterance, no matter what it is?

Well, in 2 Corinthians 4:6, the Pharisee Paul seems to be steeped in Philo’s theological tradition when he says: After all, it is God who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” God who has given light in our hearts so that the light of the knowledge of God’s glory will shine forth in the person of the anointed King.

The “word” for Paul seems to be “Light shall shine out of darkness,” and that light is somehow intimately connected with the person of Jesus. Similarly, John interweaves the ideas of light (τὸ φῶς) and the logos. In any case, light is the end-product of whatever process the author(s) of this tortuous exordium is/are attempting to describe.

Zen master Wuzhun Shifan, Chinese, 13thC

Zen master Wuzhun Shifan, Chinese, 13thC

CONNOR   12/9/13
Is John like the Zen masters insofar as he’s posing a riddle? I think I understand the first five words and then I run into a stone wall. “In the beginning” evokes Genesis, of course, and “the word” must refer to God’s decision to begin it all not with the fireworks of the Big Bang, or some differentiation in a primal chaos, but with a speech act. It all starts when he  reaches for one of my favorite grammatical forms, the third-person imperative, and says “Let there be light.”

So far, so good, and soon enough he’ll be talking about light, and maybe I can understand that. But in the meantime this first of all speech acts, this λόγος, is said to be “over near God” (pros) and in the next breath John says the logos was God — no, the word order implies that God was that speech act. Wait a minute. Genesis doesn’t say that. God can’t just be what he says, the orders he gives for creation to proceed, can he?

The next sentence carries me into even deeper difficulty. (Yes, I am trying to be a reader who is not already immersed in a Trinitarian view of the divine; someone who does not know at the outset that this Logos is that man from Nazareth.) When John says “This one…” (οὗτος), he’s telling me that I have to read the beginning of Genesis as if the speech acts were a person, standing next to God, and merging or blended in with Him somehow. That pushes me onto totally new territory, pulls the rug out from under my reading of Genesis and who knows how much else. It tells me I have to read in a way that seems to me unwarranted; leaves me puzzling who this οὗτος is, and how I am to make sense of what will follow. I am tangled in a riddle and don’t know how to wriggle out of it.

The riddle starts at the beginning of creation, the beginning of a text as well, where we are transported back to the beginning of the Old Testament. The exordium ends by bringing us back to the OT, Exodus this time, wherein Moses receives the Law (1:17). Along the way, the riddle is answered. This Logos was not John the Baptist, but the anointed Jesus. And what did this Jesus do? He ἐξηγήσατο (1:18): he “expounded,” he interpreted, he explained. Literary language! Explained what? God? So the RSV, “he has made him known.” But there is no direct object in the Greek, no “him,” no “God.”  And the verb is one for dealing with puzzling texts.

So, what Jesus does, at one level, is to explicate OT texts.  And he can do that because of what 1:18 tells us. He is the monogenes, the only child, the one who gets to sit in his daddy’s lap. (In some of the best mss he is not just monogenes, he is monogenes theos, the only begotten god).

Fine, except there’s no “sitting” word. Maybe one is not needed. Would it be OK to say, “only begotten, in the lap of the father”? Instead we find ὁ ὤν — “the one who is.” And that, of course, was God’s answer to Moses when Moses asked for his name (Exodus 3:14). “Tell them I am pure being,” in effect, is God’s answer to the naming question. And here it is again. This anointed Jesus is pure being, too.

“Explicated” — beautiful!  And carrying θεόν over as object, as seems valid, we have this mirror-logos who, by becoming flesh, did just that with God: took him apart, dissected him, showed us what he is and how he works.God’s grammar and syntax.  God’s logos. The other evangelists, and above all Paul, can knock themselves out pulling OT refs out of their hats, but John’s point seems to be that Jesus, just by walking his walk and talking his talk, showed us what God really is.

The Only Begotten and the Word of God, Kremlin, Moscow, 16thC

The Only Begotten and the Word of God, Kremlin, Moscow, 16thC

Like Bob, I’m struck by ἐξηγήσατο with no object, suggesting perhaps a universal object, everything. “No one has ever seen God, but the μονογενὴς [only begotten], he explicated it all”?

But Bob may be leaning a bit too heavily on ὤν (“being”) in 1:18. In Exodus, when Moses asks what God’s name is, God says “I am what I am” (I prefer that to “I am that I am”, which isn’t English). Does this really mean “I’m pure being”? I think it’s closer to “None of your business”, or “Don’t think you can refer to me with a mere name” (the source of the Jewish tradition of not uttering a name for him?). In John, I think the ὢν in the phrase ὁ ὢν εἰς τὸν κόλπον τοῦ πατρὸς is merely predicative, not an attribute, a rather awkward way of saying “the one who’s in his father’s kolpos” — where “chest” (old-fashioned bosom, i.e. heart) seems more to the point for kolpos than the image of a baby on a lap. The son is the heart of the father. At any rate, it seems a stretch to see here a claim that the son is being itself — smacks too much of that unpleasant obscurantist Heidegger for my taste.

Lots of puzzling over μονογενὴς θεός (“only begotten god”) in 1:18 from early on. I’m no one to judge the relative quality of mss, but that reading is accepted by my Westphalia 1966 text, and while I see that some mss have ὁ μονογενὴς ὑιός (“the only begotten son”), and that Origen & Irenaeus quote the phrase as μονογενὴς ὑιός θεοῦ (“the only begotten son of God”), both of those could be rejected on the principle of difficilior lectio — the more difficult text is more likely to be the original, the more orthodox versions being attempts to emend the difficulty away. That said, “only begotten god” is jarring, to say the least. Any parallels in John or elsewhere?

You’re both puzzling over the lack of an object for ἐξηγήσατο in 1:18 — μονογενὴς θεὸς ὁ ὢν εἰς τὸν κόλπον τοὺ πατρὸς ἐκεῖνος ἐξηγησατο. I’m pretty sure you’ll find that object, θεὸν, in the preceding sentence: it’s simply carried over into the following statement: “No one has ever seen God … it was the only-begotten [one] who ‘explicated’ him (made him known/knowable).”  And that seems to be the way just about everyone reads it.

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