“In the beginning … ” (John 1:1). A Jew picking up this text to read it in the first century AD could not fail to be reminded of the beginning of the Scriptures: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth … .” He would agree that “in the beginning was the word,” because Genesis 1 describes how God created all things merely by speaking — all things were made through his word. More than that, the Torah was seen to exist in the beginning, and “word” and “law” are often used interchangeably (cf. Ps 119).
The Wisdom literature of later Judaism also speaks of Wisdom “who knows your works, and was present when you made the world” (Wis 9:9). Wisdom is closely related to the Torah in this literature; Sir 24:3–4 speaks of Wisdom coming forth “from the mouth of the most High” and dwelling in the highest heaven. Sir 24:34–43 relates this Wisdom with the Torah. So a Jew might well agree that ‘the word’ was with God in the beginning, and even that “the word was God.”
Beginning to read The Gospel According to John, then, a Jewish reader would feel that he is on familiar territory. Reading on, he or she would find that verse 2 calls ‘the word’ a ‘he,’ but Wisdom was personified in the above literature (albeit as a ‘she’). Even verses 3 and 4 could not meet with an objection, since all things were created by the word of God, and life was the result of the acts of creation. Again, in verse 5, we are very explicitly reminded of Gen 1:3–5 and the separation of light and darkness, as the first creative act that leads to life.
John 1:6–8 sounds simply as if God has sent another prophet, — a prophet who will be a “witness to the light.” Ps 119:105 tells us, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path,” so that, for our Jewish reader, it would seem that this prophet John is a witness to the Torah. Who could object to that?
Why was the author of the Fourth Gospel trying to appeal to a Jewish reader? This Gospel was written at a time when Christians had clearly split from Judaism, and both were establishing their identity. After the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem in 70AD, Judaism reformed and became rabbinical Judaism. Many Christians had been born Jews, and even some Gentile Christians had first become Jews, and had been part of the synagogue. John‘s Gospel reflects the pain and bitterness that existed once Christians were expelled from the synagogue for believing in Jesus, and that pain is reflected in the Prologue (1:1–18).
The evangelist was writing for a rather embattled community. Not only had their Jewish members been expelled from the synagogue (possibly with a public humiliation, including flogging), but they were under attack from Jews who, following the prescription of the Law in Deut 13:12–15, believed that killing Christians was doing the will of God (cf. John 16:2). The Johannine community seemed to be leaderless, perhaps mourning the loss of their founder (cf. 21:21–23), and certainly mourning the apparently absent Jesus.
Yet the evangelist was also writing for those Jews who thought that they could still remain in the synagogue and be secret Christians. This whole Gospel insists that you have to be ‘in’ or ‘out,’ and John 9 especially acts as a call for those ambivalent Christians to speak out, and be willing to be thrown out of the synagogue, not into the darkness, but into the ‘light of the world’ who stands outside waiting for them (9:5, 35). There can be no sitting on the fence.
It is not just for these ‘secret Christians’ that the evangelist shaped his text according to Old Testament motifs and symbols. In this Gospel, he also shows that the Christian community is the true continuation of Israel, and that all of Israel’s institutions, practices and feasts had been replaced or fully completed in the very person of Jesus. The glory of Israel, previously found in the Temple and the Torah, would now be found in the Risen Jesus, living in their midst. Therefore, this Gospel text was shaped to show that what had happened in Jesus was just a continuation of their traditional beliefs, and that God had acted to intervene in history just as he had in the past.
The evangelist was being very careful here, as our Jewish reader would insist that there is only one God. This was foundational for Judaism, and the injunctions against worshipping other gods were ancient in Israel. The Prologue seems to be describing the one God, but in a way similar to the partial duality we find in the Wisdom literature. Gently, the evangelist tries to lead the reader to see how this pre-existent Word is a person who can act in the world in a way that is never independent of the Father.
Our reader finds, as the Prologue proceeds, that, once again, God’s initiative is not recognised and is even rejected by Israel. He is disappointed and perhaps even horrified at the thought that this initiative of God (through his Word) should not be recognised by “his own.” It would be like rejecting the Torah. He is further informed that, even though the whole world was made through the Word, when the word comes to “his own, his own people did not accept him” (v.11). There is a great sadness about this text. There is even a sense of hostility about it, with the darkness trying to overcome the light of the world (v.5).
He would welcome vv.12–13 — it sounds like the story of Israel, a people who had accepted God’s word and entered into a close relationship with God. How could he object to the idea of being “of God” or even being a spiritual ‘child of God’ (cf. Ps 2:7)?
Our Jewish reader is being led to a new understanding through this text, but he reaches his moment of decision in v.14: “And the Word became flesh.” This was the stumbling-block for so many Jews faced with the gospel, as Paul testified (1 Cor 1:23).
As if in recognition of this difficulty, the evangelist begins to give an enthusiastic testimony — “ [he] lived among us, and we have seen his glory.” This glory is the same glory Israel saw in the desert (e.g. Exod 16:10), and represents the presence of God among his people — it is the same presence. The evangelist continues boldly now — the claim can no longer be held back. It is the son who shows the glory of the Father, just as any son should.
In no way does the evangelist claim that the Torah, given through Moses, is at an end. Rather, v. 17 insists that this new gift of the father is just “on top of” the old. And he continues his testimony: “From his fullness we have all received, gift upon gift” according to the usual generosity of the God of Israel. The law was a gift through Moses, but now an even greater gift has come through “Jesus Christ.” The gift is finally named. The gift is a person, a man of flesh and blood (the word ‘flesh’ prefigures his ultimate rejection; cf. 6:51).
There is a sense of intimacy throughout; the intimacy between the Son and the Father extends to the intimacy with Israel (“his own”). Further, the pathos of God shows through. In his generosity, he gives gift after gift, only to be rejected again by “his own.”
In v.1, the Word was “with God.” In v.18, he is still “in the bosom of the Father” and always will be. The evangelist reminds us that it was through this pre-existent Word that creation occurred and God became revealed in creation (cf. Wis 13:1–5). If so, how much better can God be revealed if this Word, the Son of the Father, should come in the flesh and live among us. Surely, he is best qualified to reveal the Father. The Torah can hardly reveal the Father to the same extent as this Son can.
We must not think that the non-acceptance of the Word applies only to those people ‘back there’ — it applies to us every time we do not accept the Word of God in our lives, and accept the intimate relationship that is offered to us as children of the Father.
How this rejection by the many and acceptance by the few will occur is played out in the great drama that is the rest of the Gospel. Those who will not receive Jesus (whom the evangelist calls “the Jews”) send their emissaries to John the Baptist to see if he is the Messiah (1:19). John tells them that he is certainly not the one, but there is one in their very midst who is much greater (1:27). The opponents do not even bother to ask who it is.
The Prologue is a testimony given from the evangelist to members of his own family — his fellow Jews. It is given with sadness, as he knows that most will not listen. Yet his hope is that a few will make the break from the old family, and join him in the new. It is not just the pathos of God that can be felt in the Prologue; there is also the pathos of the evangelist.
Sadly, the light of God is too often ignored, and is even rejected, and the darkness is preferred. The good news is that, as v.5 tells us, the light always shines.