Gospel of John 1:1-5
In studying this Gospel over the next months, I want to give John a chance to respond to critics, both then and now. He did not write this masterpiece in a vacuum; it came as a specific response to what was happening as the last eyewitnesses were dying.
Many details about this Gospel are unknown or lightly explained, including the date he wrote. Consensus puts the date in the decade of the 90s CE. Some put it in the late 80s, and some after 100 CE. Written records place it in wide usage by the middle of the Second Century CE. Ignatius, Papias, and Justin commented on the Gospel.
In the last couple of centuries, scholars have suggested other possible authors. I haven’t seen any argument that I believe can overturn the weight of the early records that uniformly credit John the Apostle. True, his name does not appear anywhere in the manuscripts, but then, as we will see, he names only a few of the Apostles (and he does not call them Apostles).
I, like most Christians, have imagined the followers of Jesus to be about his age, but a little more thought will show that to be unlikely. If Jesus were 30 when he started calling his Apostles, he would almost certainly have called young men, as rabbis practiced in the day. Possibly Peter was the spokesman in part because he was well into his 20s while the rest were younger, some perhaps teenagers. This is speculation on my part.
Peter is the only one we know—from the Bible—who was married. The fourth century church historian Eusebius wrote that Phillip was also married, and he was able to attend the weddings of two of his daughters while the other two remained single. Bishop Clement wrote in the early Third Century that both Peter and Philip were married. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:5, Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? NIV
Irenaeus, a second century leader, wrote of John: The church at Ephesus was founded by Paul, and John remained there till Trajan’s time; so she is the true witness of what the apostles taught. Against Heresies Trajan died in the year 98 by our calendar. That would place John’s death in or near that year.
I have no evidence for this, but I believe that when Jesus chose his Apostles, John was a teenager, and his brother James was older, possibly 20. If we say (for example) that John was 18 when he answered the call; his birth would have been in the year 12, making him 86 when he died. That was very, very old. I also think the younger ages of the Twelve could help explain why they acted like children so often. Again, I have no proof.
We do know that the upstart religion was going through tough times by the writing of this Gospel. Jewish leaders had hounded them for decades; thousands of them were either killed or forced to flee when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE; and Gnosticism began attacking the true faith with its lack of understanding of who Jesus was. With all this in mind, John decides to add his memories to that of the Synoptic Gospels. They wrote a generation before John, so they did not stress the themes needed to right the ship of faith.
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God. NET
What a way for John to begin. For anyone who believes that Jesus was just another human, this one sentence tells us that Jesus was God. For those who think Jesus never existed, the Word existed before Creation. For those who believe the universe is a collection of gradual changes depending on pure chance, God controls those ‘chances.’ All of Creation is ‘spoken’ into existence. Yet, all that depends on faith, as John will tell us over and over.
Notice key words begin and end sections: beginning—Word, Word—God, God—Word. This is one form of poetry found in this chapter.
In the beginning, takes me right back to Genesis 1. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. ESV For John to use that phrase was no accident. He demands throughout his Gospel that we never throw out the ancient Scriptures—the First Testament. He fills his Gospel with Scripture references that we will note along the way.
God created the world by using His mind, by thinking of the building blocks—both atoms and their smaller parts. That is why John chose the Greek word, logos, to represent both the planning and the execution of Creation. 3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.ESV
Psalm 33:6 reads, By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,their starry host by the breath of his mouth. NIV Other passages have similar expressions, so the idea of the Word of God being a person was common in Jewish thinking by the time of Jesus.
Isaiah 55:10-11 adds an image of the coming Messiah as the Word. 10 As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, 11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. NIV
As we know, Jews in Jesus’ time spoke Aramaic. Few could speak any Hebrew, though most could recite key passages of Scripture. Well before the first century, as synagogues developed, the reading of the Scripture in Hebrew would be followed by an Aramaic translation given from memory. As time passed, people added more Aramaic phrases to clarify the Hebrew. In the second century CE, all the Aramaic was written as the Targums.
Without getting into many translation details, the Aramaic word, Dibbera, translated the phrase, the Word of the Lord. That gives us this reading in Numbers 7:89, From there the Dibbera used to speak with Moses. It was a short leap always to associate the Word of the Lord with nearly everything God did because Dibbera included Word.
Starting in the nineteenth century, Christian scholars began to read the Targums, realizing they were the words that Jesus and the disciples heard and used. They understood the Scripture in Aramaic.
By the time John wrote his Gospel, most Christians were Greek some thirty years after Matthew, Mark, and Luke. He knew that Greeks had little background to understand the Messiah of Scripture, so he turned to logos. Jews easily connected logos to Creation, and Greeks associated logos with the Greek Stoic philosophy that humans can see and touch God. John tells the Greeks there is only one God.
Nearly all English translations of Genesis open with ‘Beginning,’ based on the Hebrew word be-re’shit. But, as the word is used in Genesis, it should be translated ‘When.’ I find in The Jewish Study Bible, The Hebrew Bible by Robert Alter, and the JPS Torah Commentary that they all translated When God began…. Further, they all treat verses 1-3 as one sentence, with verse 2 describing the state of matter when God started His work.
2 The Word was with God in the beginning. 3 All things were created by him, and apart from him not one thing was created that has been created. NET
Of this, Chrysostom wrote about 380 CE; While all the other Evangelists begin with the incarnation…John, passing by everything else—his conception, his birth, his education, and his growth—speaks immediately of his eternal generation. ACCS
A few years earlier, Hilary of Poitiers wrote, I will not endure to hear that Christ was born of Mary unless I also hear, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God.” ACCS
A technique used here by John is repeating contrasting ideas: All things were created—not one thing was created.
The Creation described by John suggests Genesis 1:26, Let us make man in our image. John stated for all to know that God is One but manifested in multiple forms. One form introduced here is the Son of God—the Jewish Yeshua. That image gives us God the Father and God the Son.
But I jump ahead. Here John gives us the Word, Mind, Thought, Expression of God’s Being, and through that Expression, all the physical universe came to exist. It is not for us to know just how God spoke all this into reality. It is enough to know that God alone did it; and that the Spoken Word or uttered thought also entered the body of Miryam, and she gave birth to the New Adam—Yeshua—who remained perfect while on earth.
That Spoken Word, that Son of God, created all we see and touch. Moreover…
4 In him was life, and the life was the light of mankind. 5 And the light shines on in the darkness, but the darkness has not mastered it. NET
John will make so much of this imagery of light throughout the Gospel. In Genesis, we read that God’s Word created light—verse 3—yet the Creation of the sun and moon comes in verses 14-18, even after the Creation of plants. That again is because the creation story is written in poetry. Day 1 is paired with day 4, day 2 with day 5, and day 3 with day 6. If you read it that way, light occurs in 1 and 4.
Is it true that the light of humanity is Yeshua? The sun in the sky is a weak allegory for the true Light of the world. A quick look at the use of light in the OT besides the Creation; there is the pillar of flame, the call of Israel to be the light to the nations, and the light of God’s presence with his people in Isaiah 9:2. Now, the traveling Tabernacle which housed the Presence of God had become the traveling Yeshua, the human God. This is a paraphrase from a post by Ian Paul in Psephizo.
In God’s creation, Light always defeats darkness. As Psalm 27:1 has it; The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear? NIV Isaiah 60:1 “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. NIV Isaiah 9:2 The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. God’s Word is the only light we need. NIV
One more point. John is trying to stop developing ideas that Jesus may have been a creation of God. Here, John boldly states that the Son of God existed before Creation, in fact, he assisted in the Creation.
Be righteous and do good.