• He Answered Them

John's Prologue

Updated: May 28

The significance of the prologue to John’s Gospel cannot be overstated, despite there being some disagreement between scholars as to the involvement of redaction. What is constructed within the first several verses and then by extension throughout the body of the gospel, is a highly structured, well thought out, work of great theological importance around who Jesus was. In this essay we will explore the authors deliberate linking of the biblical narrative found the Old Testament through to the interpretation of Jesus’ message extolled within His ‘Kingdom of God’ ministry. Much of this linking and new thematic set up can be found in the introductory verses of the Gospel thus highlighting how vital verses 1-18 are for interpreting the Gospel.

After A. von Harnack argued the point that the Prologue was a late addition to the writing to ‘prepare the Hellenistic reader for the Gospel’,[1] academic investigations around the prologue’s focus fell into redaction criticism. Gundry, mentions how M.J Lagrange held that ‘the rest of the gospel was not written in view of the prologue’.[2] The obvious theme of the initial verses of John 1 being that of ‘The Logos’, the Divine Word of God incarnated in Jesus. Gundry provides further evidence of the academic debate by using this theme and quoting E.F Scott ‘..in the Fourth Gospel the messianic idea is replaced by that of the Logos’ where the term is never used again within the gospel itself; instead the messianic person of Jesus is expressed in terms of ‘the Christ’ and ‘Son of Man’.[3] Is the inclusion of this new framing of Jesus as ‘the Logos’ proof of an editorial decision taken at a later date? Scholars concede of reoccurring themes throughout the Prologue and the Gospel: pre-existence of God, contrast of light and dark, the seeing of Jesus’ Glory and the seeing of God by no other than Jesus.[4] With that in mind we should reach the same conclusion as Gundry and many other Scholars, the themes, plus the similarities of vocabulary and style, make it hard to deny the prologue as an original construction of the meticulous author.[5]

As E.C Hoskyns writes, ‘the prologue is not so much a preface as a summary’.[6] As we established, the significance of the prologue cannot be sought through redaction criticism so we must seek it through narrative criticism. This takes us immediately to the structure, indeed as Käseman points out, ‘the structure of the Prologue is at present a matter of more vigorous debate than its purpose’.[7] The eighteen verses are composed as biblical poetry or perhaps as Bultmann points out a hymn[8] with a chiastic structure.[9] This is important to note as much of the Old Testament is written this way,[10] from this we find a compositional link to the Tanakh, a conscious decision by the author, which extends to a narrative link; the very first words being paralleled with Genesis 1:1 ‘In the beginning..’

The purpose of the Prologue is undoubtably to affirm Jesus as ‘The Word’, the ‘Logos’, the mechanism employed by God to bring about creation. Hengel writes[11] that the climax of the Prologue is verse 14, which openly states the case for the incarnation.[12] Important information is given to the reader prior to this point. The thematic structure of how the ‘Logos’ relates to God, Creation and Mankind respectively, occurs in the first five verses and thus sets the scene for the deeper soteriological elements of the Gospel.[13] Immediately prior to Hengel’s climax are the important verses 12-13 which expound the relationship that man finds in God, and how this relationship is first found in Jesus.

‘..to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God’

Here we have the establishment of the relational bond that humanity shares with God, followed by the establishment of Jesus as ‘The Word’; this intelligent literary device therefore also joins humanity to ‘The Word’.

Kermode writes how the Johannine Jesus is the most communicative of the four Jesus portrayals. Missing from the gospel are Jesus’ use of parables, instead we find much more lengthy discourse.[14] This does not mean that He no longer uses metaphor, on the contrary, He uses some of the most important, in particular the ‘I am’ statements. The reporting of Jesus’ miracles are far more prominent in the Synoptic Gospels; in John these are referred to as ‘signs and works’ and as Gundry notes, they are very much under reported.[15] The author’s focus shifts from the establishing of Jesus as ‘the Word’, to Jesus’ actual words. The prologue in many ways had already set us up for such a transition, and the thoughtful symmetrical structure it contains continues through the narrative of the rest of the book.[16]

Although the rest of the gospel does not explicitly speak of Jesus as the pre-existent, creative word, found in the prologue, we find that Jesus himself does[17]. The narrative structure has a particular focus on the theme of seven.[18] Jesus is referred to by others with seven different titles,[19]He performs seven ‘signs’,[20] refers to himself seven different ways[21] and most importantly, uses ‘I am’ seven times.[22] This use of ‘I am’ is a direct reference to God’s Covenant name found in the old testament books of Exodus and Isaiah. The number seven is used in Hebraic tradition to denote completion[23]. Therefore, we not only see a linking, but perhaps a conclusion to the biblical narrative with the Prologue alluding to this same connection. Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God ministry, which is more obvious in the synoptics, begins to take form within John’s Gospel. Following Jesus’ words is the way of realising the Kingdom. As Schnackenburg writes, ‘Jesus’ word is verbum verbi, the word of The Word. The voice that makes The Word audible’[24] The author is gradually revealing his intention as laid out in the Prologue; the deity of Jesus and the ministry of Jesus closely entwinned, not just a revelation of God but the manner in which to engage with God.

A clear example of that engagement is found in the epilogue, where Jesus commands the fisherman to cast their net onto the other side of the boat, immediately they are rewarded with a large haul of fish.[25]The implication from this is that following what Jesus says leads to abundant provision. The author of John, the self-identified ‘beloved disciple’, had been leading up to this point from the very beginning of his writing. Through this he brings about a new Christology, one which Irenaeus adopted fully. Hengel notes that Irenaeus quotes the Prologue to John around forty times.[26] Irenaeus clearly recognising the significance of the first eighteen verses and ‘the salvation-historical character of the Prologue’.[27]

To conclude, the Gospel of John is by some measure different from the synoptics, although it maintains many similar themes which at first do not seem obvious. The author sets out to establish a new portrayal of Jesus as an important extension of God. His word and His wisdom are announced within the prologue and this theme continues through the rest of the book. This theological work is set up in the first few very significant verses which make them vital for the interpretation of John’s message.

[1] Von Harnack A. Ueber das verhälnis des prolongs des vierten Evangeliums zum ganzen work, (ZTK,1892) [2] Gundry Robert. H,The Old is Better (Tübingen:Mohr/Siebeck,2004) p324 [3] Gundry R.H, The Old is Better, p324 [4] Gundry R. H, The Old is Better, p324 [5] Gundry R.H, The Old is Better, p326 [6] The Fourth Gospel, Hoskyns E.C, ed Davey F.N, (London: Farber and Farber,1947) p137 [7] Käseman E, New Testament Questions of Today, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press,1969) p139 [8] As Käseman points out in his previously cited work, Rudolf Bultmann believed it to be a Baptist Hymn composed in Aramaic. [9] Patterns which exhibit a symmetry structure of A B B A, read Strauss M, Four Portraits, One Jesus (Grandrapids: Zondervan, 2007) p76 [10] Almost one third according to Knut Heim, How and why we should read the poetry of the Old Testament for public life today, Comment Magazine, 2011, <https://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/how-and-why-we-should-read-the-poetry-of-the-old-testament-for-public-life-today/> [accessed October 2020] [11] The Gospel of John and Christian Theology, ed. Bauckham R, (Grandrapids: Wm B Eerdmann Publishing, 2008) p268 [12] John 1:14 ‘The Word became flesh and dwelled among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the one and only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth’ [13] Staley J, The Structure of John’s Prologue: Its Implications for the Gospel’s Narrative structure, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 48 (1986) p249 [14] Gundry R.H writing of Kermode, The Old is Better, p326 [15] Gundry R.H writing of Kermode, The Old is Better, p326 [16] Staley J, The Structure of John’s Prologue p242 [17] The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed Brown R.E, Fitzmeyer J.A, Murphy R.E (London: Burns & Oates, 1968) p 943 [18] The Bible project, The Gospel of John Overview Chapter 1-12 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-2e9mMf7E8&ab_channel=BibleProject> [accessed November 2020] [19] Lamb of God, Son of God, Rabbi, Son of Man, Messiah, King of Israel and Jesus of Nazareth [20] Water into wine, healing a sick boy, healing a paralyzed man, feeding five thousand, healing a blind man, raising Lazarus and His own resurrection. [21] ‘bread of life’, ‘light of the world’, ‘gate for the sheep’, ‘The Good Shepard’, ‘resurrection’, ‘way truth and life’ and ‘true vine’ [22] 4:26, 6:20, 8:24, 8:28, 8:58, 13:19, 18:5 [23] Strauss. M, Four Portraits, One Jesus p223 [24] Gundry R.H, The Old is Better, p339 [25] Chapter 21 [26] Hengel M, The Gospel of John and Christian Theology, p266 [27] Hengel M, The Gospel of John and Christian Theology, p266

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