What Did Pilate State in John 19:22?: Conclusion

[See part I]

In the conclusion here I shall more closely explore the three verses leading up to Pontius Pilate’s pithy phrase in 19:22. Some necessary background in John’s Gospel will be provided first.

Events Leading Up to Jesus’ Arrest

In reaction to Jesus’ increasing popularity following the miracle of Lazarus’ revivification (11:38-45; 12:9-11), some of ‘the Jews’8 conferred with the chief priests and the Pharisees who then summoned the Sanhedrin (11:46-47). They were concerned they would eventually lose their “place and nation” (11:48). While “place” in its Scriptural context may refer to the Temple, it may well (also) mean the leaders’ privileged positions, which were granted by, yet subject to, Roman authority.

At this meeting Caiaphas, the High Priest (11:49) said, “…it is better that one man die for the people than for the whole nation to perish” (11:50; cf. 18:14). The narrator of the Gospel adds:

51 He did not say this of himself but, as High Priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, 52 and not only the nation, but also that He would unite into one the children of God who are dispersed.9

The Greek words for “children of God” above are found only here and in 1:12 in John’s Gospel. Thus, ironically, the fulfillment of his words would have different consequences than he likely assumed (cf. 7:35), and would result in the inclusion of Gentile believers as children of God on equal footing (12:32; cf. 4:42; Rom 2:28-29).

They then plotted Christ’s death (11:53), apparently conspiring to arrest Him at the next available opportunity toward that end (11:55-57).

In the meantime, the Devil cast into the heart of Judas Iscariot the desire to betray Jesus (13:2; cf. 13:18, 21). Shortly thereafter, at the Last Supper, “Satan entered into him” (13:27), and then Judas left to carry out his betrayal (13:30). Soon after that he went to an olive grove where he knew Jesus often met with his disciples, bringing with him “a detachment of soldiers and some officers of the chief priests and the Pharisees” (18:1-3).

Jesus’ Arrest and Trials

Jesus was subsequently arrested and brought before Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas (18:12-14), who questioned Him (18:19-23) before sending him on to Caiaphas (18:24). Then Christ was led to Governor Pilate’s palace (18:28).

Pilate enquired about the charges levied against Jesus (18:29), and with no direct answer given (18:30) he instructed them to “judge him by your own law” (18:31).10 ‘The Jews’ replied, “We are not authorized to execute anyone” (18:31). This was to fulfill the kind of death Jesus would suffer (18:32; cf. 12:33), as He indicated earlier—being “lifted up”, i.e., crucified (12:32).

Yet the fact that Roman soldiers (18:3) were employed in Jesus’ capture indicates Pilate may well have been apprised of the charges before Christ was presented to him. This would account for his first question to Jesus: “Are you ‘the king of the Jews’?” (18:33). Pilate’s words here could be intended, alternatively, as showing incredulity (cf. Isa 53:2): “You are ‘the king of the Jews’?”11 After Jesus informed him that His kingdom is not of this world (18:36, 37), Pilate found him without guilt, then asked the Jews if they would agree to release Him as per the annual tradition of freeing one prisoner at Passover (18:38-39). The Jews chose Barabbas instead (18:40).

With that Pilate had Jesus flogged (19:1). The soldiers, mocking Jesus’ ‘purported’ kingship, put a crown of thorns on His head and clad Him in a purple robe (19:2-3).

After this, still unconvinced of Christ’s guilt, Pilate tried once more to persuade them to reconsider (19:4). When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said (19:5), “Behold, the man!” This is probably Pilate’s way of challenging their charge of his alleged claim of political kingship.

In response the chief priests and their officials shouted out (19:6): “Crucify! Crucify!” In return Pilate told them to crucify Him—knowing they couldn’t of course—again stating he found the charges to be without foundation (19:6). ‘The Jews’ countered using a different tact, “We have a law, and according to this law He must die, for He made Himself God’s Son” (19:7; cf. 5:18; 10:33). They were likely appealing to Leviticus 24:16, accusing Jesus of blasphemy.

Upon hearing their new allegation Pilate grew more afraid (19:8). Having been immersed in Greco-Roman polytheism, Pilate may have thought Jesus a ‘divine man’. Whatever the case, this new claim prompted him to ask Jesus, “Where are you from?” (19:9). When Christ remained silent Pilate apparently grew agitated, adding, “Don’t you know I have the authority to release you and I have the authority to crucify you?” (19:10). Jesus responded, “You would have no authority over me if it had not been given to you from above; therefore, the one who has delivered me over to you is guilty of a greater sin” (19:11; cf. 10:17-18).

From this point forward Pilate kept seeking to release Him. But, in persistence, ‘the Jews’ shouted, “If you release this fellow, you are no friend of Caesar’s—anyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar” (19:12). Note the verbal connection between “makes himself a king” and “made Himself God’s Son” (cf. 5:18, 10:33) above.

It was around the “sixth hour” (noon) on the Day of Preparation of Passover week (19:14; cf. 13:1). With this time marker we know that Jesus’ impending death, only a short time away, would be around the same time when priests would begin slaughtering paschal lambs (Exo 12).12 Now the “Lamb of God” (1:29; cf. 1 Cor 5:7; Heb 9:11-15; 1 Pet 1:19; Rev 5:6) is about to meet a similar fate at about the same hour (cf. Exo 12:46; John 19:33, 36).

In response to their last statement (19:12), Pilate brought Jesus out and said (19:13-14), “Here is your king!” To that they shouted: “Take that man away! Take away! Crucify him!”13

Pilate answered (19:15), “Shall I crucify your king?”

The chief priests, in feigned allegiance to Caesar for the sake of expediency, answered (19:15), “We have no king but Caesar!” Their claim could be understood as a denial of their own God, their King (Jdg 8:23; 1 Sam 8:7; Psa 136:3)—at Passover, no less.

Their response was intended to dissuade Pilate from releasing Jesus, as doing so would make it appear he recognized Him as a rival to Caesar’s kingship. And thus Pilate failed in his efforts to free Jesus. ‘The Jews’ and the chief priests forced his hand, and so he handed Jesus over to them for crucifixion. Obviously unhappy with this turn of events, Pilate would exact revenge against them.

The Crucifixion and Pilate’s Enduring Statement

With Jesus formally sentenced, the soldiers took charge (19:16). After carrying His cross, He was ‘lifted up’, placed between two others (19:17-18).

Below is the brief section leading up to and including Pilate’s final statement in John’s Gospel. Each occurrence of the Greek verb root “write” (graphō) is bolded. In addition, titlos is left untranslated, for it is difficult to provide a suitable one-word substitute. An exploration of these terms will commence further below.

19 Yet Pilate also wrote a titlos and fastened it to the cross. It had been inscribed: JESUS THE NAZARENE, THE KING OF THE JEWS. 20 Many of the Jews thus read this titlos, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it had been written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek. 21 The chief priests of the Jews therefore said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘THE KING OF THE JEWS’, but that man, ‘SAID, I AM KING OF THE JEWS.’”14

22 Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.”

Pilate’s inscription was intended as an insult to the Jews. The pen is indeed mightier than the sword here—in more than one way.

Since first century Greek texts lacked punctuation (and spacing between words!), there is some ambiguity as to the exact request of “the chief priests of the Jews” and how they wished to amend Pilate’s original words. I interpret their intention was to replace ‘…THE KING OF THE JEWS’ in the inscription with ‘…SAID, I AM KING OF THE JEWS’, resulting in their proposed verbiage JESUS THE NAZARENE SAID, I AM KING OF THE JEWS. They wanted the words to reflect a claim of Jesus, not a claim of the Jewish nation. From their perspective, the inscription as it stood may “appear to be a formal declaration of Jesus’ identity rather than a charge against Him.”15

Pilate was well aware their charges had been trumped up, so he was undoubtedly taking much pleasure in making a mockery of them in response to their mocked allegiance to Caesar at Jesus’ expense. They may have forced his hand, but he showed them who ultimately had the upper hand.

But Pilate’s vindication would have other ramifications. While we understand the theological implication in Pilate’s inscription—as it stands it makes a true statement of Jesus’ Kingship—taking a closer look at the context while investigating related historical background provides a stronger foundation upon which to construe it this way.

Other Signs

It was not uncommon in first century Rome for a criminal on his way to execution to be accompanied by a sign stating both his name and the offense for which He was condemned. It was either (a) carried by an official walking in front of him16 or (b) hung around his own neck.17 But there is not much historical evidence for placing this same sign on the criminal’s cross, and what is available is ambiguous.18 We must note that none of the Gospels mention anyone carrying a sign of this sort during the Via Dolorosa. This is not to definitively claim someone had not, however. We merely have no explicit evidence. What we know for certain is that a sign was placed onto Jesus’ cross indicating His supposed crime.19

The word used in both instances above referring to the sign accompanying condemned criminals is the Latin titulus. John’s titlos—found only here in 19:19 and 19:20 in all Scripture (and seems to be first used by John)—is a ‘loanword’ from this Latin term. Titulus had rather broad applications in first century Latin texts. In addition to the two examples previously cited, the word was used by Pliny the Younger (ca. AD 61—113) for a notice to rent20 and by Roman poet Ovid (BC 43—AD 17/18) for a notice of public sale.21 It was also used to signify a grave marker.22 As can be deduced, the term applied to both the object inscribed and its inscription in these instances. However, more importantly, at times titulus was used solely for the writing in distinction from the object on which it was inscribed.23

The term can refer to epitaphs (i.e., the inscriptions) as distinct from grave markers.24 Roman historian Titus Livius Patavinus (ca. BC 64/59—AD 12/17) applied it to Hannibal’s self-inscription on an altar in which he glowingly described his own achievements.25 Columella (ca. AD 4—70), a writer on agricultural concerns, used the word to reference titles of books.26 Ovid, in the very same work referred to in the previous paragraph, used titulus to signify the title of a pamphlet.27 And most pertinent here, in a work written around the time Christ was born Ovid employed the term in reference to honorific titles, as applied to Augustus Caesar, for example.28 In similar fashion, in one context Ovid used it as a title acquired by assuming it from those conquered or from some heroic event, yet also in synonymity with “name” (Latin: nomen).29 Yet, given that Pilate’s purpose with the inscription was to antagonize ‘the Jews’, can we rightly apply any of the latter two meanings (title, name) to John 19:19?

The text in 19:19 states that Pilate wrote the titlos (titulus) and affixed it to the cross. The task of placing the titlos onto the beam, however, was almost certainly delegated. Yet given the preceding historical investigation—illustrating titulus could refer to either the inscribed object and its inscription or the inscription only—there are a number of possible scenarios with regard to the writing of the words. Perhaps Pilate dictated the desired text to a scribe for inscribing.30 Or maybe he himself penned the words on a papyrus (titlos) and then gave this document to a scribe for inscribing onto the (presumed) board of the titlos.31 It could be that he inscribed the titlos in Latin and then gave it to a secretary to translate and write the Aramaic and the Greek. Whatever the case, in some manner, Pilate wrote the titlos.

Textual Clues and Syntactical Pointers

There’s a grammatical issue in the latter part of v. 19 that may well have a bearing here. The words preceding the inscription—“It had been inscribed” in the translation above (akin to the English past perfect)—are translated from a participle reflecting a neuter subject, while titlos is masculine. In other words, it does not refer to titlos. This exact syntax is found again in 19:20. So, to what or who does it refer? This is typically translated impersonally: “There was written” (~ “It [the inscription] read”).32 However, as Keener notes, each and every time this syntactical structure with this verb is used up to this point in John it references Scripture (it is written; it had been written).33 Keener concludes, “Thus John may ironically suggest that Pilate, as God’s unwitting agent (19:11), may carry out God’s will in the Scriptures.”34 Could God’s Spirit have superintended the writing of the inscription, despite Pilate’s vindictive purpose?

The words it is written in the verses prefacing Scripture (2:17; 6:31, 45; 10:34; 12:14; 15:25; cf. 5:46; 8:17) are in the perfect tense-form, while 12:16 contains a pluperfect, the same form as 19:19 and 19:20. Though all these are important to my argument here, key is the usage of 12:16, best rendered these things had been written.35 In that context, the narrator notes that the disciples recalled earlier events but only fully understood how they fulfilled Scripture from their post-glorification perspective (after Jesus’ resurrection). Before considering this line of inquiry further, how might 19:11 (which Keener references above) impact the interpretation in 19:19?

While the authority Pilate possessed in a general sense was certainly “from above” (anōthen), as it is for all rulers and authorities, this was not Jesus’ point here. Similar to v. 19, there is a mismatch in gender in v. 11. Just as the participle in 19:19 is neuter, so it had [not] been given is in 19:11. The Greek word for authority, however, is feminine.36 Thus, if it had not been given to you from above does not refer to Pilate’s general conferred authority but to his specific role in the events unfolding at the time: “the fact that Jesus has been given into his hands has been determined by God”.37

19:11 ouk eiches exousian kat’ emou oudemian ei mē ēn dedomenon soi anōthen
not you have authority over me nothing if not was it having been given you from-above
“You would have no authority over me if it had not been given to you from above.”

This same syntactical format (‘not this’ if it has/had not been given from God) is first found in John the Baptizer’s response to those who mentioned Jesus’ baptizing and the increasing numbers going to Him (3:26): 

3:27 ou dynatai anthrōpos lambanein oude hen ean mē ȩ̄ dedomenon autō̧ ek tou ouranou38
not s/he be able person to receive and-not one if not may-be it having been given him from heaven
A person is not able to receive not one thing if not it may be given to him/her from heaven
“A person is not able to receive anything if it has not been given to them from heaven.”

Though the Baptizer’s statement serves a particular purpose in its context, it should also be seen as a maxim, a general statement.39 These words of the Baptizer are the first with this syntactical structure, while Jesus’ words to Pilate are the last. In my opinion these form bookends, one opening and the other closing an inclusio. The Baptizer’s maxim then relates to some intervening uses of “give” (didōmi) such as parts of the Bread of Life discourse (e.g. 6:37, 39), Jesus’ Prayer (17:7, 11, 12, 22), and Jesus’ cup (18:11).40 Of course, it also relates to Jesus’ statement in 19:11. The remaining verse fitting this grammatical structure (6:65) is thematically relevant:

6:65 oudeis dynatai elthein pros me ean mē ȩ̄ dedomenon autō̧ ek tou patros
no one is able to come to me if not may-be it having been given him/her of the Father
“No one is able to come to Me if it has not been given to them by the Father.”

The point here is that while God places individuals in certain positions he also orchestrates specific events, using certain individuals to accomplish specific tasks in these events. Thus, understanding Pilate’s unique role in the Passion per Jesus’ phraseology in 19:11, we might be able to assume that this circumscribed, God-given authority extends to the inscription, especially when we consider the syntax in 19:19 and 19:20 (it had been inscribed) and how that relates to other uses of this same structure. Even still, can we make the leap that his words on the inscription are tantamount to writing Scripture? If so, what Scripture is referenced?

Crucial to understanding the Gospel of John is to grasp that the author is writing from a post-resurrection perspective, with the Spirit bringing to remembrance past events, further illuminating them (14:26; 16:12-15). At various points the narrator implies this by calling attention to some of Jesus’ previous statements (12:32 via 12:33 and 18:32 | 6:39 via 17:12 and 18:9). In 2:22 the narrator remarks that after “He was raised” the disciples ‘remembered’ His words and “they believed the Scripture (graphē, noun form of graphō) and the word that Jesus spoke” (in 2:19).  But what “Scripture” is ‘remembered’ here? It cannot be the one referenced in 2:16, for 2:17 specifically states they remembered it. By the context the intended referent appears to be the OT (Tanakh) in a general sense, as it relates to the resurrection.41

Somewhat similar to 2:22 is 12:16. Here the narrator states that the disciples fully realized that these things had been written about Him only “after Jesus was glorified”. “These things” refers to the Scripture referenced in 12:13 and 12:15. Yet in this same context the narrator relates it was not only the things that had been written but also these things done to Him. We can construe that this refers to the events acted out in fulfillment of those two Scriptures. However, oddly, if at the time of Jesus’ ministry the disciples didn’t understand that He was being proclaimed king, why did the crowd say these things? The seeming contradiction is reconciled if we understand it more broadly (similar to 2:22 above) to mean Jesus’ Kingship in the post-glorification sense.42 In other words, their initial interpretation of “king” was in a political sense, then after they ‘remembered’ “these things”, God’s Spirit provided further illumination, as in 2:22.

Tying It All Together

Considering the immediately preceding regarding 2:22 and 12:16, and adding in the syntactical connection between 12:16 and 19:19-20, we have a point of contact. One may argue that the grammatical relationship (these things had been written > it had been written/inscribed) is a bit tenuous, but the thematic one certainly applies. Yet the strength of the thematic link should bolster the grammatical. If the narrator relates how the disciples’ remembrance was further illuminated (implying by virtue of the Spirit: 14:26; 16:12-15), then how much more would the narrator/writer himself be likewise illumined?43 When we factor in the syntactical relationship between 19:19-20 and all other uses of it is written / it had been written (as pertaining to Scripture) in conjunction with Pilate’s unique authority in the Passion as revealed in Jesus’ words in 19:11 (and this grammatical and thematic link to 3:27), we have a stronger case for tying all this together.

Therefore, my contention is that John wrote this with the understanding of a dual purpose for the inscription: one for Pilate’s vengeance, and one for the Spirit to make a true identity statement. In other words, John himself recognized that the words Pilate wrote had influence from the Spirit, so he chose (under influence of the Spirit) it had been inscribed/written as a way to make this connection. I further contend this is why John borrowed the Latin titulus in his use of titlos. Assuming my argument here, one can see it is certainly no leap to enlarge the definition of John’s titlos to include “title” (THE KING OF THE JEWS) and/or “name” (JESUS THE NAZARENE) or both/and (JESUS THE NAZARENE, THE KING OF THE JEWS). Thus, rather than merely considering the wording on the inscription as an implication, we have grammatical and contextual reasons to assert with confidence that JESUS THE NAZARENE, THE KING OF THE JEWS is indeed written as a Messianic title, and/or a name, a proclamation in a literal sense—in addition to Pilate’s vindication. And the prefatory it had been inscribed designates that the words following, similar to the meaning in 12:16, refer to the OT (Tanakh) generally, rather than one specific verse or section.

Given all this, Pilate’s inscription, with the assistance of God’s Spirit, could be perceived as the climactic contravening of two statements by ‘the Jews’: Jesus “made Himself God’s Son” in 19:7 (cf. 5:18; 10:33) and “makes Himself King” in 19:12 (cf. 1:49; 12:13; 18:38), both encapsulated in Nathaniel’s proclamation in 1:49 “you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel” (cf. 12:13).

If all this prevails, then the chief priests of the Jews’ plea to Pilate to amend the title may be interpreted as an indirect attempt at usurping God’s authority by unknowingly trying to change Scripture. Interestingly, the narrator does not record that they ‘wanted to change’ (using allassō, e.g.) or something to that effect; instead they say to Pilate “do not write” (using graphō). This is yet another grammatical and thematic link further cohering the four verses (19:19-22).

Yet Pilate refused to alter the altar: What I have written, I have written. What I have written, I stand by. The irony then is that Pilate, a pagan and acting as God’s unwitting agent, stood by God’s words, while the opposing Jews, who had just executed their Messiah, wanted to amend them.

So, what did Pilate “state”? His final words “What I have written, I have written” affirm his inscription, and by doing so, those words remain in Scripture in a state of having been written. And, if the analysis here is accepted, with God’s ‘hand’ on Pilate’s ‘pen’, Pilate ‘wrote’ New Testament Scripture, words that endure to this very day.44

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8 I place ‘the Jews’ in single quotes when the text uses οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι (hoi Ioudaioi), since this is the manner in which the Gospel of John chooses to identify this sub-group. Note, however, that while John’s characterization is mostly negative in the text here, there are quite a few times in the Gospel when the term is used in positive (2:6; 4:22; 8:31; 11:19, 31, 33, 36, 45; 12:9, 11; 19:31) or neutral (1:19; 2:13; 3:1, 22; 5:1, 15; 6:4; 7:2; 11:55; 13:33; 18:20; 19:20, 40, 42) settings (such as in describing a certain festival “of the Jews”), or times in which the group is perhaps understandably perplexed (2:20; 6:41, 52; 7:15; 7:35; 8:57; 10:19). The term’s meaning in John is a bit ambiguous and remains an enigma. Even the designation the Pharisees is sometimes used positively or neutrally (e.g. 9:16). However in this section of John’s Gospel ‘the Jews’ are Jesus’ adversaries.

9 My translation, as are all Scripture quotations in this article. The Latin is also my translation, assisted by online sources and, at times, by others’ English translations. My goal is to adhere closer to a formal equivalence than a dynamic or functional one. To that end, I endeavor to translate nouns for nouns, verbs for verbs, etc.

10 The words of Pilate here may well be an example of artistic license on the part of John the Evangelist. These may have been meant to be ironical in that, according to Mosaic Law—and in truth, of course—Jesus was not guilty of any crime.

11 Since Greek finite verbs encode person and number, a pronoun is not necessary unless the subject is ambiguous; thus, the presence of the pronoun “you” (συ) here is not necessary, and may be used for emphasis.

12 Here I’m following John’s intent in his presentation of events without trying to reconcile them with the Synoptic accounts. See Thompson, John: A Commentary, pp 388-390. Thompson presents a synopsis of (1) the difference between the Synoptic Gospel’s accounts regarding the timing of Jesus’ death as compared to John’s, (2) the problem of associating Jesus’ death with the “sixth hour” (noon) and how this does not seem to correlate with the timing of the slaughtering of Passover lambs.  However, John’s chronology indicates Jesus will be crucified later than noon (he had to first take up his own cross and then walk to the crucifixion site), and so her observations regarding the typical time range for sacrificing Paschal lambs (beginning a bit after 1:30 in the afternoon at the earliest) do not necessarily contradict this. Those attempting to reconcile John with the Synoptics employ various measures. See, e.g. Andreas J. Köstenberger’s contribution in G. K. Beale & D. A. Carson eds., Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007), p 500.

13 The twice-used verb for “take away” (αἴρω, airō) has a somewhat broad semantic range that can mean take up as in to raise up to a higher position, move to another place, carry away. It seems likely a double meaning is intended here. That is, ‘lift that man up’ may be understood as the additional meaning, in irony.

14 The word translated “Aramaic” is Hebraisti, which some English versions render “Hebrew”. Following Harris (Murray J. Harris, John, Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament, Andreas J. Köstenberger & Robert W. Yarbrough, gen. eds. [Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2015], p 314), I construe the periphrastic ἦν + γεγραμμένον in v. 19 and v. 20 as akin to the pluperfect of γράφω (cf. 12:16), though I prefer to translate as an English past perfect rather than a simple past.

15 Thompson, John: A Commentary, p 398.

16 In Roman historian Suetonius’ (c. AD 69—122) Caligula—Emperor from AD 37 to 41—an account of a slave sentenced to execution by the Emperor for stealing silver (32.2) was “preceded by a sign indicating the cause for his punishment” (Latin: praecedente titulo qui causam poenae indicaret). Cf. for a similar account in the 2nd century (AD 177) Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 5.1.44, in which someone carried a board (πίναξ, pinax) in front of Attalus with the inscription THIS IS ATTALUS THE CHRISTIAN.

17 In Suetonius’ Domitianus (10.2-3)—Domitian was Roman Emperor from AD 81 to 96—the sign describing the charge was placed upon the accused gladiator himself (cum hoc titulo: Impie locutus parmularius; “with this sign [upon him]: ‘A Parmularian [gladiator] impiously spoke’”).

18 Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, two volumes (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003) p 2.1137. “The posting of the accusation on the cross is not well attested, either because those describing the crucifixion had already mentioned it being carried out . . . or because the practice was not in fact standard although, given the variations among executions, in no way improbable . . . (p 2.1137, n 608).

19 Although only Matthew (27:37) and Mark (15:26) specifically refer to a sign stating the cause (aitia) for which Jesus was crucified, this does not mean we cannot infer this from the other Gospels (cf. John 19:6).

20 Letters, 7.27 (“To Sura”): Athenodorus legit titulum: “Athenodorus read the notice (to rent the haunted mansion)”.

21 In Remedia Amoris (Cures for Love), for the notice of sale (Latin: sub titulum, “‘under’ the notice”, i.e., “using the notice”) for the household items the unscrupulous girl had plundered (302). Cf. the oft-neglected Marvin R. Vincent, Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2009), p II.283. Cf. Tibellus (c. BC 55-BC 19), Elegiae, 2.4.54: ite sub imperium sub titulumque; “you go under her command and under the notice.”

22 Pliny the Younger: Letters, 6.10.3: post decimum mortis annum reliquias neglectumque cinerem sine titulo sine nomine iacere: “ten years postmortem his remains have been cast down and neglected, without a grave marker and without a name.” That titulus in this context does not mean “epitaph” (the inscription itself as distinct from the marker) is evident by the next line of the epistle, in which the author specifies the words the deceased wanted inscribed (inscriberetur) as his epitaph. Also see Ovid, Fasti, Book IV.23, 44, in which titulus refers to a scroll and the writing upon it (longum scriberet annum vidit  . . . proximus est titulis Epytus: “to see what he might have engraved on the roll . . . next on the scroll is Egyptus”).

23 See F. R. Montgomery Hitchcock, “The Use of γράφειν,” Journal of Theological Studies old series 31 (1930), pp 272-273.

24 Martial (ca. AD 38/41—102/104), Epigrammata (published between AD 86 and 103), I.93.4: Plus tamen est, titulo quod breviore legis: ‘Iunctus uterque sacro laudatae foedere vitae, famaque quod raro novit, amicus erat’: “Yet more is what you glean from this brief epitaph: ‘Knit in the sacred bond of life with an honored reputation rarely known: they were friends’.” Cf. Ovid, Epistulae: Sappho Phaoni, 15.190-195; cf. Pliny the Younger, Letters, 9.19.3: . . . si immortalitatem quam meruere sectantur, victurique nominis famam supremis etiam titulis prorogare nituntur: “ . . . if they now seek immortalization, and the names they have so greatly earned in glory and fame to secure, and to perpetuate themselves by epitaphs.” By the context it seems possible that both the inscription and the grave marker are included in titulus here, but the primary meaning is certainly the epitaph/inscription itself.

25 Titus Livius, Ab Urbe Condita (The History of Rome), 28.46.16 aram condidit dedicavitque cum . . . titulo: “he erected and dedicated an altar with . . . an inscription.”

26 De De Rustica, Book IX, preface: tituli, quern prae-scripsimus huic disputationi: “the title, which we have prefixed to this discourse.” Cf. De De Rustica, Book VIII, preface; cf. Quintilian (ca. AD 35—100), Institutio Oratoria, Book 2.14.4: quos hac de re primum scripserat, titulis Graeco nomine utatur: “from earlier [works] which he had written, Greek name titles were used.” In other words, he used Greek names as titles in earlier works.

27 Remedia Amoris, in the very first line of the poem (1): titulum nomenque libelli, “name and title of this little book”. I interpret this as epexegetical such that “name” further defines titulus. In other words, “name” refers to the title (and ‘title’ refers to the name) on the book’s title page, in order to differentiate it from the other meaning of titulus as both inscription and inscribed object (title page). Alternatively, the terms titulus and nomen could be synonymous here. See note 29.

28 Fasti, Book III.419-420: Caesaris innumeris . . . accessit titulis pontificalis honor; “To Caesar’s innumerable . . .  titles the honor of Pontificate was added.” Cf. M. Tullius Cicero (BC 106—BC43), Against Piso, 9.19: posset sustinere tamen titulum consulatus: “might have the power to sustain the title of consulate.”

29 Fasti, Book I.599-604: si a victis, tot sumat nomina Caesar, quot numero gentes maximus orbis habet, ex uno quidam celebres aut torquis adempti aut corvi  titulos auxiliaris habent. Magne, tuum nomen rerum est mensura tuarum; sed qui te vicit, nomine maior erat: “If Caesar claims names from those conquered, let him take as many as the mighty globe has nations! From one event some celebrate—either from a neck-chain won or allied ravens—the titles they possess. O great one [Pompey the Great], your name is the measure of your deeds, but he who conquered you was greater in name.” Cf. Ovid, Fasti, Book IV.115, in which the goddess Venus is referred to as the titulus of a calendar month. See note 27 for another possibility.

30 See Hitchcock, “The Use of γράφειν,” pp 271-273.

31 Ibid.

32 E.g., Harris, John, p 314. See note 14 above.

33 Keener, Gospel of John, p 2.1138. All but one of the Scripture verses Keener cites here are perfects (as the periphrastic ἔστιν γεγραμμένον: 2:17; 6:31, 45; 10:34; 12:14; 15:25), the lone exception being 12:16, a pluperfect (the periphrastic ἦν + γεγραμμένα). While the perfects are important, it is this exception in the pluperfect that provides the primary link for the argument I shall put forth here.

34 Keener, Gospel of John, p 2.1138. The author understands Pilate’s conferred authority in 19:11 in a general sense (pp 2.1126-27) rather than in the more circumscribed view I shall pursue below.

35 It is actually a periphrastic, an equivalent to the pluperfect—see note 33.

36 More specifically, the participle δεδομένον is neuter. It would have to be the feminine δεδομένη to agree with the feminine ἐξουσίαν (authority) here. Cf. C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John: An Introduction with Commentary and Notes on the Greek Text, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978) p 543. In addition, it may be that Jesus’ answer here includes a roundabout answer to the question Pilate posed in 19:9: “Where are you from?” Answer: ἄνωθεν, “from above”.

37 Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John, transl. G. R. Beasley-Murray, Gen Ed., R. W. N. Hoare & J. K. Riches (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1971), p 662. Cf. George R. Beasley-Murray, John, Word Biblical Commentary, D. Hubbard, G. Barker, gen. eds. (Waco, TX: Word, 1987), pp 339-340; D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, Pillar New Testament Commentary, D. A. Carson, gen. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), pp 601-602

38 There is a difference here in that a neuter subject is found in ἕν, hen (one) from the apodosis.

39 C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John, p 222.

40 This does mean to imply, of course, that 3:27 (and 6:65 just below) is no longer applicable as a general maxim.

41 See C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John, p 201.

42 See Carson, The Gospel According to John, pp 433-434.

43 See Jörg Frey, Theology and History in the Fourth Gospel (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2018), pp 151-154.

44 Alternatively, John the Gospel writer took certain liberties in fashioning his Gospel, and in so doing, re-formed some words to make his theological and christological points.

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What Did Pilate State in John 19:22?

In reading any common English translation of John 19:22, one finds Pilate saying, “What I have written, I have written.” This is certainly not incorrect, yet I have a feeling some readers may not quite comprehend the significance of this statement, in part, because they are unaware of distinctions in English verb tenses.1 Some may erroneously think “What I wrote, I wrote” conveys the same meaning. In addition, there is a theologically important connotation in the larger context that readers of the English versions would most likely not perceive.

Below is the Greek of Pilates’s quote, under that is its transliteration (exchanging each Greek letter for English equivalents), and underneath that is a corresponding working English translation:

ὃ γέγραφα γέγραφα
ho gegrapha gegrapha
What I have written I have written

The first word is the relative pronoun who/which/what, appropriately translated “what” in this context. Following that are two verbs, the second an exact duplicate of the first. We’ll reserve the final translation until after our investigation. All Greek finite verbs encode person and number (1st person singular, I; 2nd person singular, you; 3rd person singular, he/she/it; etc.), though not gender (male, female, or neuter). In the above, each verb is 1st person singular, and they obviously refer to Pilate. Because every finite verb encodes person and number, each may form a subject-verb sentence, depending on context. For instance, Jesus’ final word on the cross is tetelestai (John 19:30), translated “It is finished.”

The verb gegrapha is in the perfect tense-form (of graphō) in the active voice and the indicative mood. The indicative is the most common mood, expressing facts, false statements assumed to be true, false statements as if true, opinions, or questions. The active voice presents the subject performing the action (Jon ate lunch)—the passive voice is used when the subject receives the action (Lunch was eaten by Jon).

The precise meaning indicated by the Greek perfect tense-form is in dispute, though there are a number of theories proposed in recent scholarly literature. Specific discussion of any of these theories is not necessary, however, as some of the older Greek grammars address the issues relative to Pilate’s statement, and we can apply them here. While the Greek perfect tense-form has a wide range of applications, for our purposes it is easiest to conceive it as similar to the English present perfect tense. This is what is reflected in all the English translations at the above hyperlink (have written). It may be helpful to briefly explain/review the English present perfect as well as a few other English tenses.

Some Tense Explanations in English

Verbs in the English present perfect tense express past verbal actions that retain some sort of connection to the present. If I were to state I have written over 100 blog posts, you would rightly infer that all 100+ posts are still available for reading on this blog. They are all in a state of having been written, a state of ‘written-ness’, and available for viewing.

Alternatively, had I constructed the same sentence but in the English simple past tenseI wrote over 100 blog posts—you might infer that the posts were written at some point in the past yet are no longer available for viewing. The difference between these two English tenses can be found in their respective names. The simple past refers to verbal actions in the past with no further implication of present relevance. The “perfect” in present perfect means “complete”, denoting the past (completed, perfected) portion of the verbal action, while “present” in present perfect indicates the verb’s relevance in the present. The “present” portion of the present perfect tense is formed by using the appropriate auxiliary verb for the present tense, matched by person and number: I have (1st person singular), you have (2nd person singular), she/he/it has (3rd person singular). The “perfect” (past) portion is formed by using the appropriate past participle of the main verb (I have written, you have written, she/he/it has written).

Though the simple past tense does not imply continuing relevance, this does not necessarily mean there is no connection to the present. The simple past is merely silent regarding current relevance. Comparatively, a verb in the English present perfect always implies something about the present. Thus, the context will determine which one is more suitable. Let’s make a comparison:

I lost my marbles yesterday.
I have lost my marbles! (and I am frantically trying to find them)

In the first instance, reflecting the simple past tense, this is a simple narrative statement, implying no continuing relevance. The second instance reflects the present perfect tense, of course. If it took ten minutes to find my marbles, then that would have been ten minutes I was in a state of having lost my marbles, frantically trying to find them. Upon finding the marbles I would be in a new, much happier (and more lucid) state of having found my marbles. At that point I could exclaim—again using the present perfect tense—“I have found my marbles!”, illustrating this new state.

I could recount the episode by using the past perfect tense: “I had lost my marbles yesterday”. The past perfect indicates a past action that had subsequent relevance in the past following that action (without commenting on present relevance). After finding my marbles yesterday I could have put the two sentences together, stating: “I had lost my marbles, but after a frantic search I have found them!”. Thus, had lost (past perfect) reflects the past action + its subsequent past relevance, while have found reflects a past action + present relevance.

Context will determine which verb tense is best to use:

Francois made dinner last Thursday. He might even make dinner again next month.
Mom has made dinner. (and dinner is now ready to eat)
Myrna has watched all the Die Hard movies three times, and she plans to watch them all again.
Jacob had washed the towels. He has now placed them into the dryer. (they are currently drying)
Johnny has listened to the train coming into the station every day for the past three years.

While the simple past tense of  Francois’ dinner in this context implies this was a one-time only or rare occurrence, the present perfect tense of Mom’s dinner implies that dinner is now ready to eat. As for Myrna, the present relevance of the present perfect tense is the fact that this apparent Bruce Willis fan enjoys these movies so much she wishes to watch all them yet again. The past perfect tense had washed represents the necessary prerequisite for Jacob’s currently drying towels, the latter implied by the present perfect has placed and the adverb “now”. In the final example, it is reasonable to infer that Johnny will listen to the trains yet again tomorrow, given the daily recurring (“every day”) has listened, i.e., present perfect tense.

With this brief review of a few English verb tenses completed, we are ready to proceed to the Greek.

Some Tense Explanations in Koine  (New Testament) Greek

This idea of a past action with continuing relevance in the present in the English present perfect tense is the primary thrust of the Greek perfect tense-form. Smyth provides a basic definition: “a completed action the effects of which still continue in the present”.2 Dana and Mantey use a broader outline:

The significance of the [Ancient Greek] perfect tense in presenting action as having reached its termination and existing in its finished results lies at the basis of its uses. Emphasis, as indicated by context or the meaning of the verb root, may be on either the completion of the action or on its finished results. This possible difference in emphasis lies at the basis of the variation in the uses of the perfect tense.3

Going back to the previously mentioned tetelestai, “it is finished” in John 19:30, like the twinned verbs in 19:22 this one is in the perfect tense-form. Yet here the verb is in the 3rd person singular and the passive voice. Note that, with the exception of Young’s Literal Translation, common English versions do not read it has been finished. This is because, though the larger context implies completed actions leading up to the culmination point, translators deem that it is the state of completion that is the emphasis in the immediate context: It is finished.4

Similarly, in Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, He answers the Devil’s commands/temptations with gegraptai, “it is written” (Matthew 4:4,7,10, and parallels)—the “it” referring to Scripture. This verb has the same root (graphō) as our subject verse John 19:22, and it is in the same perfect tense-form. The only difference is that here it is a 3rd person singular in the passive voice. The common rendering “it is written” reflects the primary focus on its state of having been written, not on the fact that Scripture was written. As A. T. Robertson comments on its usage in these contexts, “It was written . . . and still is on record.”5 Just like my example of the blog, both the past action and the present results are encoded, but here it is the latter that is understood as the main point: It is written.

Now going back to English for a few moments, let’s say you have a report that needs to be written by 5 o’clock today. At 4:15 your nosy coworker asks if you will meet the deadline. Given that you typically set out to finish a task at least an hour before the deadline (you do, right?), if you express your answer with the verb finish or write, you could say:

I have written the report. (active voice, present perfect)
I have finished the report. (active voice, present perfect)
The report has been written. (passive voice, present perfect)
The report has been finished. (passive voice, present perfect)
The report is written. (passive voice, ___________?)
The report is finished. (passive voice, ___________?)

Though the last two are unquestioningly passive, there is cause to question whether these convey the same meaning as the middle two sentences. To better illustrate, below is a new sentence, stating it in the English present perfect, first in the active voice, then in the passive, followed by a sentence in the same format as the last two above.

Sally has written the book.
The book has been written by Sally.
The book is written by Sally. (?)

To alleviate any possible confusion, observe that the second sentence contains the same exact verb form (has been written) as the passive example further above regarding the report that was due at work. Note the difference between “has written the book” here and “have written the report” above. The different auxiliary verb (has vs. have) reflects the difference between the 3rd person (Sally has) and the 1st person (I have). With this clarified, we’ll resume.

Recall that the English present perfect reflects a completed (perfected) action with relevance in the present. The first two sentences certainly are present perfects. But the third one is an attempt at illustrating the state following the verbal action, in order to focus on the result over against the past action. But is this an accurate way to convey this? Let’s take the same basic sentence just above and put it into the English simple past tense, then the simple present tense, both in answer to the question “Who is the author of this book?”

Sally wrote this book. (active) >> This book was written by Sally. (passive)
Sally writes this book. (active) >> This book is written by Sally. (passive)

Notice how the bolded sentence above is identical to the third one in the previous set. Thus, that sentence, like this one, is in the simple present. Speaking on this specific issue, Smyth writes, “When the [Greek] perfect marks the enduring result rather than the completed act, it may often be translated by the [English] present.”6 Did you notice what I did in the previous sentence? I prefaced the Smyth quotation with writes, the English simple present, mirroring the first of the second pair of sentences just above (Sally writes the book.). My objective was to signify the enduring words in Smyth’s grammar book. This is typical English convention—that is, substituting the English simple present for the English present perfect when the verb’s enduring result is the emphasis in a given context as opposed to the verb’s completed action.

Yet this convention does not work as well in the 1st and 2nd person for the English present perfect in the active voice. We can quickly deduce that each sentence on the right below cannot be understood to say the same thing as the one on its left:

I have written the document. >> I write the document. (?)
I think you have written this note! >> I think you write this note! (?)

With all the foregoing, we are prepared (finally!) to get back to Pilate’s statement. The first instance of gegrapha is best rendered “I have written”, just like the typical English translation.7 This reflects the past action of inscribing JESUS THE NAZARENE, THE KING OF THE JEWS (19:19) as well as the present results reflected in those words as they appear on the sign. We could paraphrase this first part of Pilate’s statement (ho gegrapha):

“What I wrote and currently appears on the sign…”

The enduring relevance of this first verb began at the point at which the inscribing of the inscription had been completed (19:19) and continued until the time Pilate responded to the chief priests (19:21-22). In other words, the duration was relatively short.

But what does the second occurrence of gegrapha mean and how should it be translated? The Jews were unhappy with Pilate’s phrasing of the sign, strongly suggesting he amend it. But Pilate was resolute—he wasn’t going to change it. So, what is the best way to translate this second Greek perfect-tense verb? Strictly speaking, “I have written” is correct, and we may well leave it that way. Yet this second gegrapha focuses on the then-present enduring result of the sign’s ‘written-ness’. Since we cannot use the passive voice (“it is written”, “it stands written”) because this verb is in the active voice, and we have determined that the active voice in the English simple present (“I write”) does not adequately convey the results of a present perfect (“I write”), we may phrase it something like:

“What I wrote and currently appears on the sign, I shall keep recorded.” (I shall not change)
“What I wrote and currently appears on the sign, I shall retain.” (I shall not change)
“What I wrote and currently appears on the sign, I stand by.” (I shall not change)

The last sentence above may be the best, since it does not use a future auxiliary verb (shall) as do the others. To be sure, the future enduring results are implied, but it’s the present enduring results that are specifically encoded by the Greek perfect tense-form here. Then again, the state of ‘written-ness’ should be understood as remaining unless and until some further action brings about a new state. With none specified in the larger context, it is safe to assume this state will continue on.

Thus, to capture the overall meaning here—though it’s not as pithy and as catchy as “What I have written, I have written”—I might render John 19:22:

Pilate replied, “What I have written, I stand by.”

Pilate’s inscription JESUS THE NAZARENE, THE KING OF THE JEWS remains written. What does this signify theologically in its context? The next part will elucidate.

____________________________________________

1 I am taking the words in the Greek text of John as the words of Pilate, whether or not these reflect his very utterance. The words may well be John’s own rendering in service of a larger theological motif. More on this later.

2 Herbert W. Smyth, Greek Grammar, Gordon M. Messing, rev. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956 [1920]), p 434, § 1945.

3 H. E. Dana & Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (NY: Macmillan, 1955), p 201 § 184.

4 Of course, one must concede that because of the verb root itself—complete, finish—the past necessarily recedes in favor of the state of completion. In other words, it cannot be ‘unfinished’. Note Marianne Meye Thompson’s objection to this rendering (John: A Commentary, New Testament Library, C. Clifton Black, et al eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2015]), “…Jesus’ last words from the cross, tetelestai, ‘It is finished!’ (19:30) surely means ‘it has been accomplished’ or ‘it has been completed’ with reference to completing God’s mission and work” (p 395). I have to agree.

5 A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1934), p 895.

6 Smyth, Grammar, p 434, § 1946.

7 Some grammars and commentaries claim this first γέγραφα is “aoristic”, functioning as if an aorist tense, akin to the English simple past wrote. Entailed in this position is that the second γέγραφα is construed as an English present perfect have written, with a focus on the enduring result. Robertson makes a strong case that the perfect never functions ‘aoristically’ in the NT, though it does later (A Grammar of the GNT, pp 898-902; cf. 895 [β]).

Probing the Prologue in the Gospel According to John: John 1:6-8

[See Introduction; John 1:1-2; John 1:3-5]

Some believe the prologue was initially a Christian hymn, repurposed by the Gospel writer.48 At least a few with this perspective construe 1:6-8 as an interpolation, an addition to the original hymn.49 Yet even if the prologue had its genesis as a hymn, with the Gospel writer adapting it, inserting these verses for his own aims, one should hardly view 6-8 as merely parenthetical, as if almost superfluous. On the contrary, these three verses are integral to the overall purpose.50 They serve to shift the light in 1:4-5 from some ambiguous post-creation period to the public sphere at a particular time—thus revealing the apparent polysemy in v. 5—via the witness of a man named John.51

This man, John, is ‘sent from God’ (v. 6). Within the prologue (and the Gospel) he is never identified as “the Baptist” or “the Baptizer”, however the writer consistently records him elsewhere in terms of this function by using various forms of the verb baptize (βαπτίζω, baptizō: 1:25, 26, 28, 31, 33; 3:26; 10:40). Accordingly, he shall be called “the Baptizer” here, in order to differentiate him from the Gospel writer.

The Baptizer will be mentioned yet again in the prologue (v. 15).

A Man Sent from God

 Ἐγένετο ἄνθρωπος, ἀπεσταλμένος παρὰ θεοῦ,52 ὄνομα αὐτῷ Ἰωάννης
Egeneto anthrōpos, apestalmenos para theou, onoma autō̧ Iōannēs
Came (a) person,53 having-been-sent from God, name to him John
There was a man, sent from God, named John.

This verse begins with the same verb used throughout v. 3—ginomai (here in the aorist form, egeneto). However, it serves a different purpose in this context, taking on a slightly different nuance. The verb here functions as a discourse marker, signaling a transition, introducing a new character54 (cf. Mark 1:4).

Yet there may be an additional implication in this context. Though the aorist egeneto can be used to signify a ‘coming into being’ at a point in time (cf. 8:58: “Before Abraham came into existence/was born”), it can also indicate a time period, such as an entire lifetime. When considered in conjunction with the perfect participle apestalmenos, as well as the final clause (cf. Luke 1:13: “Your wife, Elizabeth, will give birth to a son, and you shall call him John” [to onoma autou Iōannēn]), this interpretation gains plausibility.55 In other words, when the initial (principle) verb is taken in its full sentential context, the Baptizer’s entire existence, beginning from his birth (as foretold in Luke 1:11-20 by Gabriel, who announced both his purpose and the Nazarite restrictions to be placed upon his entire life), is likely authorial intent.

The introduction of the Baptizer in the prologue, his ‘coming’ (egeneto), is contrasted with the introduction of the Word (vv. 1-2), aka the Light (vv. 7-9ff), as ‘being’ (ēn).56 While the Baptizer came (egeneto), as one sent from God within the course of human history, the Word (the Light) existed (ēn) with God in the beginning, pre-history.57 Moreover, the Baptizer was a man (anthrōpos), while the Word (the Light) is identified as God (theos).58

The participle apestalmenos, from apostellō (its noun form apostolos, “apostle”; apostolē is “apostleship, assignment”), means more than merely “sent” here.59 It connotes being commissioned or consigned for a particular purpose. The Baptizer was consigned by God.

The Baptizer Testifies about “the Light”

οὗτος ἦλθεν εἰς μαρτυρίαν ἵνα μαρτυρήσῃ περὶ τοῦ φωτός,
houtos ēlthen eis martyrian hina martyrēsȩ̄ peri tou phōtos,
This-one came for testimony so-that he-might-testify concerning the Light,
This man came as a witness, to testify about the Light,

The writer proceeds from the general of v. 6 to the more specific in 7. In contrast to egeneto in v. 6, ēlthen (the aorist of erchomai) here is best defined “of making an appearance: come before the public, appear”.60 It focuses on the Baptizer’s ministry.

Strictly speaking, a subject pronoun (houtos here) is redundant—all finite verbs encode person and number (though not gender)—so the presence of the demonstrative pronoun provides some measure of emphasis.61 The sense is this particular man (as opposed to another).

The Baptizer was commissioned to bear witness to the Light—not unlike Moses before him, who was commissioned (LXX: apostellō) by the LORD, YHWH to go to Pharaoh, to lead the sons of Israel out of Egypt (Exodus 3:10-15).62 The Light is picked up from verse 5, thus firmly situating ‘it’ in the first century via the Baptizer. And, as Hurtado asserts, this ‘Light’ “can only be Jesus, as the succeeding narrative goes on to explain in 1:19-34”.63 Verse 1:31 provides the most succinct statement of his commissioning: “…I came baptizing in water so that He [Jesus] might be revealed to Israel”. This serves as further evidence towards negating the position that “the Word” was an ‘it’—an utterance, or merely a personification of God (see The Word was an “it”? section in 1:1-2).

The clause hina martyrēsȩ̄ is epexegetical, that is, it serves to further explain the preceding eis martyrian.64 The Baptizer came as a witness, but for what purpose specifically? He came as a witness, to testify about the Light.

While the Baptizer’s testimony places the Light into the specific historical setting ca. 30 AD, from the undefined period (and ambiguous function) of vv. 1:4-5,65 one should not think to limit his witness to his first century ministry. The Baptizer continues to testify via this Gospel’s written record (and other New Testament writings) as each new reader imbibes its elixir of life.

Jesus, in speaking with the Pharisees (John 8:12), claims to be “the Light of the world” (to phōs tou kosmou), and those who follow Him will not walk in darkness, but will have “the Light of life” (to phōs tēs zōēs)—certainly a reference to 1:4-5. In v. 4, however, the narrator states that life (zōē) was in the Logos and that this life was “the Light of humanity” (to phōs tōn anthrōpōn).

Jesus explicitly or implicitly refers to Himself as “the Light” a number of times in John’s Gospel (3:19-21; 8:12; 9:5; 11:9-10; 12:35-36; 12:46).

ἵνα πάντες πιστεύσωσιν δι᾿ αὐτοῦ.
hina pantes pisteusōsin di’ autou.
that all might-believe through him.
so that all might come to believe through him.

Since the genitive form (autou) of the Greek personal pronoun autos could represent either a masculine or neuter noun, there is initial ambiguity as to its referent: belief through whom? Is it the Light or the Baptizer? The ambiguity quickly vanishes when the larger context is considered. The subject is the Baptizer, and the emphasis is on his testimony about the Light; thus, the Baptizer is the intended referent. Belief in the Light is to be effected through the Baptizer. The next verse reinforces this. John the Baptizer’s ultimate goal is to bring all to belief in the Light through his testimony—a lofty objective, indeed.

Pantes pisteusōsin di’ autou (“all might believe through him”) here should be compared to v. 3’s panta di’ autou (“all through Him”). In v. 3 panta (“all”) is neuter, denoting the entirety of creation; comparatively, pantes (“all”) in v. 7 is obviously limited to humans (anthrōpos) and is, accordingly, understood to be masculine. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that v. 7’s pantes refers back to the humanity (anthrōpōn) of “the Light of humanity” (to phōs tōn anthrōpōn) in v. 4. The life in the Word is the Light of humanity, and John’s aim is that all men and women believe in this Light.

The use of “believe” here is the very first in John’s Gospel. It forms the initial bookend of an inclusio, with “believe” in 20:31 the other bookend. The Baptizer is one witness among quite a few in this Gospel (the Father, the disciples, etc.), another one being the recording of Jesus’ signs “so that you may (come to) believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (20:31).66

The aorist subjunctive pisteusōsin, “might believe” is likely ingressive, signifying initial coming to faith (“might come to believe”).67 Yet the temporal sphere of the verb’s action should be understood as encompassing both the Baptizer’s entire earthly ministry and his continuing legacy via the Gospel. All might come to believe by the Baptizer’s words as he spoke them in the first century, and all might come to believe via the record of the Baptizer’s testimony in John’s Gospel in the ensuing centuries on up to the present day.

The Baptizer was Not the Light

οὐκ ἦν ἐκεῖνος τὸ φῶς, ἀλλ᾿ ἵνα μαρτυρήσῃ περὶ τοῦ φωτός.
ouk ēn ekeinos to phōs, all’ hina martyrēsȩ̄ peri tou phōtos.
not was that-one the Light, but so that he-might-testify about the Light.
He was not the Light, but ˻he came˼ to testify about the Light.

Once again we find a demonstrative pronoun (ekeinos) used for the Baptizer. In this context, especially given its placement after the verb, it is emphatic, referring back to the demonstrative houtos at the beginning of v. 7.68 The italicized He in the translation illustrates this emphasis.69

Excepting the adversative conjunction alla (the final a elided here), “but”, the last two clauses (hina martyrēsȩ̄ peri tou phōtos) mirror two clauses found in the middle of v. 7. As the phrase is elliptical, with the verb omitted, a verb must be supplied from either v. 7 (ēlthen) or v. 6 (egeneto, or a form of apostellō).70 Most popular English versions insert “he came” (ēlthen)—as rendered here. This seems best, for this is the nearest anteceding principle verb.71

Some believe the emphatic He was not the Light may have been stated in response to a group of individuals who viewed the Baptizer as the Light/Christ (Messiah) or some other lauded figure.72 Possible Biblical evidence for this may be inferred from John 1:19-25 (cf. 3:22-36) and Acts 18:25-19:7. However, some caution must be exercised here, for the Baptizer is highly regarded in this Gospel (and elsewhere), so to see this strictly as a polemic against a presumed John the Baptizer sect is likely overstating the case.73 Rather, this emphatic statement more likely provides a transition to v. 9.74 Moreover, Jesus identifies the Baptizer as “the lamp” (ὁ λύχνος, ho lychnos) in John 5:35. The lamp came not to self-illuminate, he came to shed light on the Light.

_________________________________

48 Keener, Gospel of John, pp 1.334-337; cf. Edwards, Discovering John, pp 84-97.

49 See, e.g., Bultmann, Gospel of John, pp 15-18, 48-49; cf. Bruce (F. F. Bruce, Gospel & Epistles of John), who supposes, “It may have been originally a separate composition which has been integrated with the Gospel by having two preliminary sections of narrative dovetailed into it—verses 6-8 and verse 15…” (p 28; cf. p 34). Martin Hengel (“The Prologue of the Gospel of John as the Gateway to Christological Truth” in Bauckham/Mosser, John and Christian Theology) is “convinced that this hymn corresponds to the text of the Prologue and that only the two passages about John the Baptist in vv. 6-8 and 15—written in the same style as the hymn—have been inserted to clamp it to the Gospel” (p 268).

50 See Ridderbos, Gospel of John, p 41; Barrett, St. John, p 159.

51 See Carson, Gospel, pp 119-120; Lincoln, Truth on Trial, p 58.

52 There is no article preceding θεοῦ here, though it is true that the article is lacking before “God”, “Father”, and other ‘concrete’ nouns in prepositional phrases at times throughout Scripture—and as noted earlier in the comments to 1:1a of the non-concrete “beginning”. In John’s Gospel it is lacking after παρα̒ (“from/by”) only a few times (John 1:6 [παρὰ θεοῦ]; 1:14 [παρὰ πατρο̒ς]; 9:16 [παρὰ θεοῦ]; 9:33 [παρὰ θεοῦ]; and maybe 16:27 [split in the manuscripts between παρὰ θεοῦ, παρὰ τοῦ θεοῦ, and παρὰ {τοῦ} πατρο̒ς]); however, note the presence of the article in a dozen others (John 5:44 [παρὰ τοῦ μόνου θεοῦ]; 6:45 [παρὰ τοῦ πατρο̒ς]; 6:46 [παρὰ τοῦ θεοῦ]; 8:38 [παρὰ τῷ πατρι̒, παρὰ τοῦ πατρο̒ς]; 8:40 [παρὰ τοῦ θεοῦ]; 10:18 [παρὰ τοῦ πατρός μου]; John 15:15 [παρὰ τοῦ πατρο̒ς]; 15:26 [παρὰ τοῦ πατρο̒ς, παρὰ τοῦ πατρο̒ς]; 16:28 [παρὰ τοῦ πατρο̒ς]; and, John 19:25 [παρὰ τῷ σταυρῷ])—two to three times as many with the article, depending on how one interprets the text critical data in 16:27. Perhaps it’s significant that every time the article is present before “God” and “Father” after παρα̒ Jesus (Word-made-flesh) is speaking, while the times the article is lacking occurs in narrative (1:6; 1:14) or when others are speaking (9:16; 9:33)—excluding verse 16:27 from this analysis. More work needs to be done—that is, analyzing the other prepositional phrases in John—before coming to any conclusions. Of course, we already covered πρὸς τὸν θεόν in both 1:1b and 1:2, but the presence of the article in these may be understood to be a method of differentiating the anarthrous θεός in 1:1c (θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος) from ὁ θεός in 1:1b and 1:2, while simultaneously providing some commonality yet distinction between ὁ λόγος as θεός in 1:1c and ὁ θεός of 1:1b and 1:2. In other words, the arthrous θεός in the prepositional phrases of 1:1b and 1:2 may have a separate discourse function.

53 Ανθρωπος is considered gender neutral, generally (e.g. John 1:9; 2:25), yet in the cultural milieu of the first century, the a priori assumption would have been male (see Jaime Clark-Soles’ essay “‘I Will Raise [Whom?] Up on the Last Day’: Anthropology as a Feature of Johannine Eschatology” in New Currents through John: A Global Perspective, eds. Francisco Lozada, Jr. & Tom Thatcher [Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2006], pp 33-34). So, even though “man” (as opposed to “woman”) would be assumed, on first reading one should think gender neutrally. Of course, here in 1:6 the gender is made clear by both the masculine participle and the masculine name in the final clause. Note that in John 4 the Samaritan woman is consistently referenced as γυνή, even when she self-references (“being a γυναικὸς Σαμαρίτιδος” [4:9]).

54 Johannes P. Louw & Eugene A. Nida, eds. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: United Bible Societies, 1989), Electronic text hypertexted and prepared by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 4.1, “γίνομαι,” p 811 (§ 91.5); cf. Beasley-Murray, John, p 12; Harris, John, EGGNT, p 26. Bultmann (Gospel of John, pp 48-49, n 3) sees Ἐγένετο ἄνθρωπος as a Hebraism, comparing with wayᵉhı̂ ʾı̂š ʾeḥāḏ in Judges 13:2, 19:1 from the same book, and 1 Samuel 1:1, thus, to his mind, providing evidence that (a) this section (vv. 6-8) is not part of the original hymn, but the narrator’s own comments, and (b) that the narrator writes in a Jewish flavor as of one from the area of Syria (p 6). Bultmann finds other commonalities with the Hebrew, as well (p 49, n 3); cf. Ridderbos, Gospel of John, p 41. Contra Hengel (“The Prologue”, pp 276-277), who views the verb as punctiliar, paralleling it with ἐγένετο in v. 14.

55 The perfect verbal form can be defined in shorthand as ‘past action with present results’ (see, e.g., H. E. Dana & Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament [New York: MacMillan, 1927], pp 200-205); however, importantly, the time element, including duration, must be determined by context. In the overall context of vv. 6-8, and even the larger context of the entire Gospel, the participle ἀπεσταλμένος here could be viewed as strictly covering his ministry as the Baptizer. Yet, with the initial aorist ἐγένετο and the final clause which seems to allude to Luke 1, it can be viewed as encompassing his earthly existence in its entirety. The aorist ἐγένετο by itself can be understood as either a past action at a particular point in time (“came-to-be”, i.e. birth) or as encompassing a long time period (the aorist is perfective in aspect—see here for explanation), to include even the Baptizer’s whole life. If the participle was also an aorist (or if ἐγένετο was absent, and “sent” was the principle verb and in the aorist), we might be inclined to understand the entire verbal action as strictly punctiliar. But in view of the perfect participle here, ἐγένετο may be better perceived in a constative sense, to include not only the Baptizer’s public ministry (which is not mentioned until the next verse), but his entire ‘coming’, i.e., his earthly life in its totality. In other words, the past action of the perfect would be God’s initial sending (at conception or birth) and the ‘present results’ would consist of his entire earthly life. When comparing the future tense of Luke 1:13’s “you shall call the name of him John” (a then-prophecy) with “Ἐγένετο ἄνθρωπος…name to him John” (a general truth post-prophetic fulfillment), and given the evidence provided just above, it seems reasonable to see v. 6 as referring to the entire life of the Baptizer. Moreover, comparing ἐγένετο here to ἦλθεν in v. 7, and the specified function stated for the Baptizer there (see below), it seems the Gospel writer intended to start from the general in v. 6 and move to the more specific in v. 7.

56 See Westcott, St. John, para 1146. This writer, though, calls the referent in v. 9 “the Word”.

57 Brown (John I-XII, p 8) observes that ἐγένετο here is, of course, the same verb used in v. 3 and compares with the use of ἦν in vv. 1-2, noting that the former is used of creation, seemingly concluding from this that the Gospel writer used ἐγένετο as a way of identifying the Baptizer as a creature. Leon Morris (Gospel According to John, p 89) is more explicit, acknowledging that, while ἐγένετο here places “no particular emphasis on creation”, the usage in this context “must be held to point a contrast between Jesus and John”.

58 Köstenberger, John, BECNT, p 32.

59 Morris (Leon Morris, Gospel According to John, p 89, n 48) notes that the passive ἀποστέλλω here (cf. 3:28) contrasts with the active voice when this verb is used for Jesus being sent from the Father.

60 BDAG, “ἔρχομαι” (1.b.), p 394.

61 Cf. οὗτος in 1:2.

62 See Barrett, St. John, p 159.

63 Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ, p 365.

64 Harris, John, EGGNT, p 26; Barrett, St. John, p 159. Lincoln (Truth on Trial, pp 21, 58-60ff, 146) asserts John the Baptizer’s witness is part of a larger “lawsuit motif” in John’s Gospel.

65 See Bruce, Gospel & Epistles of John, p 34; cf. Koester, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel, p 129.

66 The bracketed “come to” signifies a text critical issue in 20:31, in which manuscripts are divided between the aorist and the present tense-form. See Harris, John, EGGNT, p 5 for a somewhat detailed discussion.

67 Harris, John, EGGNT, p 26.

68 Harris, John, EGGNT, p 26.

69 The KJV renders it “He was not that Light”, likely in an effort to retain, as closely as possible, the original word order in translation.

70 See Harris, John, EGGNT, pp 26-27.

71 This yields ἀλλὰ ἦλθεν ἵνα μαρτυρήσῃ περὶ τοῦ φωτός. While some English versions pick up “sent” from v. 6, this seems dubious. It requires making a periphrastic construction (adding ἦν [from the first clause of v. 8?] to ἀπεσταλμένος) or changing the participle to an aorist (or perfect?) indicative. Louw and Nida (L&N), noting that ἵνα clauses can be “markers of purpose for events and states (sometimes occurring in highly elliptical contexts)”, take ἐγένετο from v. 6 (cf. Harris, John, EGGNT, p 26), rendering this phrase but (this happened) in order that he could witness concerning the light (p 785 [§ 89.59]). But if we apply L&N here we would have two near-consecutive parallel ἵνα clauses (in v. 7 and v. 8) with different meanings, the second one taking the principle verb from the verse preceding the first one (v. 6). Applying Occam’s razor seems prudent here: supplying the principle verb found in the sentence from which this phrase is sourced (v. 7; ἦλθεν) is the simplest solution. While we certainly cannot impose English upon the Greek, this resembles the solution in the following: He went to the convenience store to pick up some milk. He didn’t go grocery shopping, but to the convenience store. We would understand the ellipsis as “he went”, that is: He didn’t go grocery shopping, but [on the contrary] he went to the convenience store (to pick up some milk).

72 See Brown, John I-XII, pp LXVII-LXX; Keener, Gospel of John, pp 1.388-391.

73 See Ridderbos, Gospel of John, p 42.

74 Barrett, St. John, p 160; Carson, Gospel, p 121.

Fishers of Persons

Now as He was walking along the Sea of Galilee, Jesus saw two brothers—Simon (the one called Peter) and his brother Andrew—casting nets into the lake, for they were fishers. And He said to them, “Come follow Me, and I will make you fishers of persons1” (Matthew 4:18-19).

Our subject verses, Matthew 4:18-19, along with the parallels Mark 1:16-17 and Luke 5:1-11 (cf. John 1:35-42), are among the number of New Testament (NT) references to fishing. Most Christians (and non-Christians) in the West are aware of the fish symbol used to signify Christianity. Nowadays it can be found on cars, various kinds of jewelry, etc. But what does the “Jesus fish”, the ichthys (or ichthus) symbolize exactly? Why and when was it first used?

fish_plain

credit: Wikimedia Commons

Possible OT and Jewish Background

While Jesus may have seized the opportunity to use the “fishers of persons” comparison simply because Simon Peter and Andrew were fishermen, it seems probable that this metaphor was also chosen to counter contemporary negative Jewish fishing metaphors. If so, the effect would have been to contrast those metaphors of God’s judgment with these fishers who will “pluck human beings out of the net of Satan and transfer them securely into the net of God”2 (cf. Matthew 13:47-48).

The Old Testament (OT) provides a number of metaphorical references to fishing, the majority relating to judgment:

  • The LORD (YHWH) sending ‘fishermen’ to catch the wicked Israelites (Jeremiah 16:16)
  • YHWH using the Babylonians to capture wayward Israel by ‘hook’ and ‘net’ (Hab. 1:14-15)
  • God threatening to take away the unrighteous of Israel via ‘fishhook’ (Amos 4:2)
  • YHWH equating Pharaoh and his people to fish who will be hooked (Ezek. 29:3-5; cf. 38:4)
  • Various peoples being caught by ‘fishnet’, symbolizing God’s judgment (Ps. 66:11; Ezek. 32:3).

Closer to the time of Christ, the Qumran community, via the Dead Sea Scrolls, provided commentary (pesher) on Isaiah 24:17, illustrating how YHWH judges the disobedient by sending Belial (Satan) to ensnare them:

Belial will be sent against Israel, as God has said by means of the prophet Isaiah, son of Amoz, saying: ‘Panic, pit and net against you earth-dwellers’. Its explanation: They are Belial’s three nets about which Levi, son of Jacob spoke, in which he catches Israel and makes them appear before them like three types of justice. The first is fornication; the second, wealth; the third, defilement of the Temple. He who eludes one is caught in another and he who is freed from that is caught in another (Damascus Document [CD IV:13-19]).3

Yet, amidst all the negative fishing imagery in the OT, Ezekiel 47:9-10 speaks of a new Temple (cf. Rev. 22:1-5), one with a river which will provide abundant life to fish (and all other creatures, vegetation, and trees receiving sustenance from it—Ezek. 47:11-12):

9 And it will come to be that every living creature that swarms wherever the river flows will live; and there will be a great multitude of fish, because this water will flow there, healing the seawater—making it freshwater. Everything will live where this water flows. 10 And it will come to be that fishers will stand on its banks: from En Gedi to En Eglaim there will be places to spread the nets. There will be many species of fish, just like the fish of the Mediterranean Sea—a multitude of many kinds of fish.

Jesus of Nazareth, the Jewish Messiah, came “to preach the good news to the poor…to proclaim freedom to the captives, renewed sight for the blind, and to relieve the oppressed” (Luke 4:18), in fulfillment of Isaiah 61:1!

NT usage of ICHTHYS, Fish

The Greek word for “fish” is ιχθυς, which is transliterated—exchanging each Greek letter for corresponding English letters—ichthys or ichthus. The Greek letters in the previous sentence are in miniscule minuscule, like our lower case letters. In majuscule, akin to our capital letters, the word is ΙΧΘΥΣ—as in the figure below—or, transliterated, ICHTHYS. The earliest Greek NT manuscripts are in majuscule; the miniscule would develop later. ΙΧΘΥΣ is found twenty times in the NT. (The word for “fisher” is the unrelated ἁλιεύς, halieus.)

Since the English transliteration has seven characters to the Greek five, further explanation seems necessary. The second and third Greek letters are digraphs in English—two letters representing one sound—whereas they are indicated by one symbol in the Greek. Here are the Greek-to-English correlations:

I, ι (iota) = I, i
X, χ (chi) = CH, ch
Θ,θ (theta) = TH, th
Υ, υ (upsilon) = Y, u/y
Σ/C, σ/ς (sigma) = S, s

fish_ichthus

credit: Wikimedia Commons

While Mark 1:16-17 is nearly identical to our subject verses Matthew 4:18-19, the good doctor Luke expands the incident considerably. Luke’s Gospel records the first great catch of fish, chronologically, in the NT (Luke 5:1-10). Simon Peter, after fishing all night and coming up empty, is instructed by Jesus to go back out into the deep water. After expressing a bit of reluctance initially, Simon relents, catching so many fish that he needed another boat to help retrieve them all!

Apparently feeling ashamed for his lack of faith, Peter fell at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Away from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” Sensing the feelings of awe within Peter, Andrew, James, and John, Jesus tells them to not be afraid, for they were now to catch people. Certainly, this first great catch of fish must be symbolically linked to their future great catches as “fishers of persons”.

The remaining NT passages containing ΙΧΘΥΣ are:

  • “…if he asks for a fish, will you give him a snake?” (Matthew 7:10; Luke 11:11)
  • The miraculous feeding of the five thousand (Matthew 14:13-22; Mark 6:32-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-13
  • The miraculous feeding of the four thousand (Matthew 15:32-29; Mark 8:1-10)
  • Paying the “Temple tax”, via the first fish Peter was to catch, in which would be a silver coin (statēr) worth four drachmae (Matthew 17:27)
  • The broiled fish that was given to the risen Jesus (Luke 24:42)
  • The account of the risen Jesus instructing the disciples to again throw out their net, a near recapitulation of the first great haul of fish, excepting their lack of hesitation this time (John 21:6-14)
  • The Apostle Paul comparing the flesh of humans with the different flesh of animals, birds, and fish as he discusses the new spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15:39)

There is one more Scripture relevant here—though it does not contain ichthys, it does contain the Greek word for “dragnet”. It is the Parable of the Net (Matthew 13:47-50), which is a mixture of the negative OT judgment metaphor and a different take on the NT ‘fishers of persons’ analogy, in the form of eschatological (end times) judgment/salvation (cf. Matthew 13:30, 40-42; Revelation 14:14-20)

Use of ΙΧΘΥΣ in early Christianity

In the first century AD, many Christian converts met in private homes.4 After the Christian faith gained wider acceptance, buildings were erected specifically for worship.5 These early places of worship were unadorned and plain, for Christians were concerned about possibly falling prey to idolatry.6

In these early days, one would not find drawings or sculptures of Christ; however, eventually, symbols representing our Lord and our faith would be made.7 Rather than fashioning a likeness of Jesus’ human form, “they made a figure of a shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulders, to signify the Good Shepherd who gave his life for his sheep”8 (John 10:11). The Messiah was also represented symbolically as a lamb.9 Other Christian symbols used were: a dove to represent the Holy Spirit; a ship, to signify the Church, the ark of salvation, sailing towards heaven; a lyre, to represent joy; an anchor, to symbolize hope; and, “a fish, which was meant to remind them of their having been born again in the water at their baptism”.10

These symbols began to be used on everyday items at home, such as lamps, vases, rings, bowls, wall-hangings and the like.11 Fish symbols were also found in the Roman catacombs in pictures with bread and wine—in some the fish is swimming in the water with a plate of bread and a cup of wine on its back, evidently alluding to the Last Supper or Eucharist.12 The oldest known ΙΧΘΥΣ-monument, the Cœmeterium Domitillae (cemetery of Flavia Domitilla) in the catacombs, is dated perhaps as early as the late first century, to the middle of the second.13 This one depicts three persons with three loaves of bread and one fish,14 a likely reference to the miraculous feedings.

It is unknown when, but someone ingeniously invented an acrostic (backronym) based on the letters of ΙΧΘΥΣ: ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ ΘΕΟΥ ΥΙΟΣ ΣΩΤΗΡ (IĒSOUS CHRISTOS THEOU YIOS SŌTĒR), which translates to JESUS CHRIST, GOD’S SON, SAVIOR.

ΙHΣΟΥΣ  = IĒSOUS = JESUS
ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ = CHRISTOS = CHRIST
ΘΕΟY = THEOU = GOD’S
ΥΙΟΣ = YIOS = SON
ΣΩΤΗΡ = SŌTĒR = SAVIOR

fish_table

Legend has it that during the early stages of Christianity and its attendant persecution, a Christ-follower, upon meeting someone whom they thought could be a fellow Christian, would seemingly nonchalantly draw one arc of the ΙΧΘΥΣ in the sand.

fishhalf

One arc of ΙΧΘΥΣ

 

If the other individual responded by drawing the intersecting arc, thereby completing the fish symbol, they would each know the other was a fellow sojourner in the faith.

fishhalf2

Completed ΙΧΘΥΣ

 

Conversely, if the other individual was not a Christ-follower, the gesture would be viewed as mere doodling and not reveal the faith-belief of the original drawer.15

According to Schaff, the ICHTHYS was the symbol most used.16 “It was the double symbol of the Redeemer and the redeemed”.17 Tertullian (ca. 155-225 AD), in his De Baptismo (On Baptism), makes this connection explicitly:

Happy is our sacrament of water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free and admitted into eternal life! A treatise on this matter will not be superfluous; instructing not only such as are just becoming formed (in the faith), but them who, content with having simply believed, without full examination of the grounds of the traditions, carry (in mind), through ignorance, an untried though probable faith…But we, little fishes (pisciculi [ED: Latin]), after the example of our ΙΧΘΥΣ Jesus Christ, are born in water, nor have we safety in any other way than by permanently abiding in water…18

In the following, Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150—215 AD) instructs fellow believers to steer away from idols, as he delineates these from the symbols described earlier. Note that he alludes to the ‘fishers of persons’ analogy:

And let our seals be either a dove, or a fish, or a ship scudding before the wind, or a musical lyre, which Polycrates used, or a ship’s anchor, which Seleucus got engraved as a device; and if there be one fishing, he will remember the apostle, and the children drawn out of the water. For we are not to delineate the faces of idols, we who are prohibited to cleave to them; nor a sword, nor a bow, following as we do, peace; nor drinking-cups, being temperate.19

In a somewhat convoluted mixing of metaphors linguistic devices, Origen (ca. 185-254) takes the miracle of the fish with the coin to pay the Temple tax and turns this into an allegory of Peter as fisher of persons:

As then, having the form of that slave, He pays toll and tribute not different from that which was paid by His disciple; for the same statēr sufficed, even the one coin which was paid for Jesus and His disciple. But this coin was not in the house of Jesus, but it was in the sea, and in the mouth of a fish of the sea which, in my judgment, was benefited when it came up and was caught in the net of Peter, who became a fisher of men, in which net was that which is figuratively called a fish, in order also that the coin with the image of Caesar might be taken from it, and that it might take its place among those which were caught by them who have learned to become fishers of men…20

The following comes from an early Christian novel (ca. 3rd to 4th century AD) Acts of Xanthippe, Polyxena, and Rebecca (part of what is known as New Testament Apocrypha). Note the reference to ‘fishers of persons’, and the possible allusion to the Parable of the Net (Matthew 13:47-52):

Thou hast sought me [Xanthippe], lowly one, having the sun of righteousness in my heart. Now the poison is stayed, when I have seen thy [Paul’s] precious face. Now he that troubled me is flown away, when thy most beautiful counsel has appeared to me. Now I shall be considered worthy of repentance, when I have received the seal of the preacher of the Lord. Before now I have deemed many happy who met with you, but I say boldly that from this time forth I myself shall be called happy by others, because I have touched thy hem, because I have received thy prayers, because I have enjoyed thy sweet and honeyed teaching. Thou hast not hesitated to come to us, thou that fishest the dry land in thy course, and gatherest the fish that fall in thy way into the net of the kingdom of heaven.21

Below is an ΙΧΘΥΣ inscription found in Ephesus (modern-day Turkey). Note the 8-spoked wheel. This is made by taking the letters, one at a time, superimposing each one over the other(s). The top and bottom of the iota must be suitably curved in order to fashion the wheel.

fish_ephesus

Early Christian inscription with the Greek letters “ΙΧΘΥΣ” carved into marble in the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Ephesus at Turkey

 

In the Sibylline Oracles, Book 8, verses 284-330 (Greek text 217-250)–dated ca. 3rd to 5th century AD–an acrostic is formed from the first letter of the first word in each line, resulting in (in English): JESUS CHRIST, GOD’S SON, SAVIOR, CROSS (ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΙΕΣΤΟΣ ΘΕΟΥ ΥΙΟΣ ΣΩΤΗΡ ΣΤΑΥΡΟΣ [IĒSOUS CHRIESTOS THEOU YIOS SŌTĒR STAUROS]). Similarly, Augustine, in his de Civitate Dei (xviii, 123) forms an acrostic in the same manner, but without “Cross”—spelling out the ΙΧΘΥΣ (ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ ΘΕΟΥ ΥΙΟΣ ΣΩΤΗΡ).

Evidence seems to indicate that the ΙΧΘΥΣ-symbol fell into disuse prior to the middle of the fourth century.22 It was apparently revived on or just before 1970, during the “Jesus movement”. The ICHTHUS is quite prevalent today, at least in the West.

—————————

1 “Persons” translates the Greek ἄνθρωπος (anthrōpos), here in the plural, the word from which we get anthropology, the study of humankind.  My translation “persons”, as opposed to “people”, goes against current norms, for the term is usually confined to formal or legal contexts, such as “missing persons” or “persons of interest”. However, this is precisely, why I chose the term! Who are we to ‘fish’ for? According to Paul’s list in First Corinthians 6:9-10, we are to fish for thieves, swindlers, adulterers (yes, adultery is still on the books as a crime in some states, and it is certainly contrary to Mosaic Law), slanderers, etc., aka “persons of interest”, until they are ‘convicted’. And these were among those converted in the 1st century. Yet, I do not wish to limit the meaning in such a manner, as this term is simply a lesser used plural of “person”. Thus, consider my usage here as a synonym to “people”, but with the added underlying sense of individuals with less-than-optimum character. And who—besides Jesus—does not fit that description anyway? In the sense that “there is none righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:12; cf. 3:20; Psalm 14:1-3), we are all “persons of interest”! All such persons need to be ‘caught’. Moreover, the Day of the Lord will only come when all “missing persons” are ‘found’ (2 Peter 3:8-10).

2 Joel Marcus, Mark 1–8, The Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), p 184.

3 Florentino Garci̒a Marti̒nez, The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: The Qumran Texts in English, 2nd ed., transl. Wilfred G. E. Watson (Netherlands: Brill, Leiden/Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), p 35. Cf. 1QH 3:26

4 James C. Robertson, Sketches of Church History: From A.D. 33 to the Reformation, Accordance electronic ed. (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1912), p 86; Larry W. Hurtado, Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016), p 3.

5 Robertson, Sketches, p 86.

6 Ibid.; Philip Schaff, Apostolic Christianity, History of the Christian Church 1; Accordance electronic ed. 8 vols.; (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), paragraph 799  / (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011), p 168; Philip Schaff, Ante-Nicene Christianity, History Of The Christian Church 2; Accordance electronic ed. 8 vols.; (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), paragraph 6357 / (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011), p 267. Hereafter, references to Schaff will be dual credited as the Accordance paragraph / the Hendrickson page(s).

7 Robertson, Sketches, pp 86-87; Schaff, Ante-Nicene Christianity, para. 6358-91 / pp 267-68.

8 Robertson, Sketches, pp 86-87.

9 Schaff, Apostolic Christianity, para. 799  / p 168.

10 Robertson, Sketches, p 87.

11 Schaff, Ante-Nicene Christianity, para. 6358-59 / p 268; Cf. Schaff, Ante-Nicene Christianity, pp 267-281, 867-868; Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, eds., Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria, Ante-Nicene Fathers, ANF II; Accordance electronic ed. 9 vols.; (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1885), paragraph 12131 [Elucidations on Clement of Alexandria’s “The Instructor (Paedagogus)” Book II, Chapter III: On Costly Vessels].

12 Schaff, Ante-Nicene Christianity, para. 6403, 9210 / pp 279, 280 (in footnote 2).

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 “Fish Symbol”, ReligionFacts.com, 18 May, 2017, Web, as accessed 25 Aug, 2018. <www.religionfacts.com/fish>

16 Schaff, Ante-Nicene Christianity, para. 6403 / p 279.

17 Ibid.

18 Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, eds., Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, ANF III; Accordance electronic ed. 9 vols.; (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1885), paragraph 28175 [Tertullian “On Baptism” Chapter I. Introduction: Origin of the Treatise].

19 Roberts, Donaldson, & Coxe, eds., Fathers of the Second Century, ANF II, para. 11707 [Clement of Alexandria “The Instructor (Paedagogus)” Book III, Chapter XI: A Compendious View of the Christian Life].

20 Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, eds., The Gospel of Peter, the Diatessaron of Tatian, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Visio Pauli, the Apocalypses of the Virgin and Sedrach, the Testament of Abraham, the Acts of Xanthippe and Polyxena, the Narrative of Zosimus, the Apology of Aristides, the Epistles of Clement, Origen’s Commentary on John, Books I–x, and Commentary on Matthew, Books I, Ii, and X–xiv, ANF IX; Accordance electronic ed. 9 vols.; (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1885), paragraph 79992 [Origen “From the Second Book of the Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew”, Book XIII.10].

21 Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, eds., The Gospel of Peter, the Diatessaron of Tatian, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Visio Pauli, the Apocalypses of the Virgin and Sedrach, the Testament of Abraham, the Acts of Xanthippe and Polyxena, the Narrative of Zosimus, the Apology of Aristides, the Epistles of Clement, Origen’s Commentary on John, Books I–x, and Commentary on Matthew, Books I, Ii, and X–xiv, ANF IX; Accordance electronic ed. 9 vols.; (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1885), paragraph 77323 [“Life and Conduct of the Holy Women Xanthippe, Polyxena, and Rebecca”].

22 Schaff, Ante-Nicene Christianity, para. 6404 / p 280.

Probing the Prologue in the Gospel According to John: John 1:3-5

[See Introduction; John 1:1-2; John 1:6-8]

The earliest New Testament Greek manuscripts were written with no spaces between words and no punctuation. This could pose challenges for readers and interpreters, especially in places where it may be difficult to determine if a given word or words were meant to close one thought or, alternatively, to open another. One such issue presents itself in vv. 3-4. Does “that has been made/that which had come to be” remain with v. 3, or does it begin the thought in v. 4? While most modern English versions adopt the former, evidence from earliest church writings illustrates most preferred the latter.14 Which is correct? My opinion is that John was being purposely ambiguous, thereby allowing both to be correct.15 With this in mind, I will exegete both ways, beginning with the punctuation used in most English translations.

All Things Came into Being through the Word

In 1:3 John uses the same verb (γίνομαι, ginomai) three different times. This verb has various nuances, most under the same basic meaning of come-to-be or become. The Gospel writer will use this verb quite often, playing on its nuances as a way to self-reference previous and future uses of this same verb, and juxtaposing one nuance with another:

πάντα δι᾿ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν ὃ γέγονεν
panta di’ autou egeneto, kai chōris autou egeneto oude hen ho gegonen
all through him came-to-be, and without him came-to-be not even one that/which has come-to-be
Through Him all things came to be, and without him not even one thing came to be that has come to be

The first clause states it positively, the second negatively to emphasize the point. The pronoun “Him” must refer to the logos, “the Word”. All things came into existence through the Word, and not one thing has come into existence apart from the Word. Panta (without the article) means all things individually in a distributive sense—animate, inanimate, the invisible realm—rather than all things collectively (which would be ta panta, itself akin to ho kosmos [see v. 10], the universe/world).16  The verb in both the first and the second clause is in the same tense-form (aorist), conveying the same meaning. The final ho gegonen is in the perfect form.  The primary meaning of the perfect here is resultative: all things that had come into being are as a result of the mediating work of the Word.

Taken together, 1:1-3 illustrates the Word’s precreation existence. The Word was, while all things (creation) came to be through the Word, thus creation ex nihilo is being described. As the mediate Agent of the creation event (not an intermediary between God and creation),17 logically, the Word’s “beginning” (1:1-2) predates creation. Also, since all things came into existence through the Word, this clearly establishes His pre-temporality, His eternality. Furthermore, that He was “in the beginning with God” establishes that the Word is co-eternal with God.

While “Wisdom” is undoubtedly a backdrop here, the description of Wisdom in Proverbs 8:22-30 indicates that it is not an exact parallel. In other words, “the Word” is not just another name for “Wisdom”. Proverbs 8:22 specifies that Wisdom is a created ‘being’18—the first of created things (cf. Prov. 3:19), but created nonetheless. Since the Word is uncreated, and is Agent of creation, Wisdom apparently was the Word’s first creation. However, one must keep in mind that the associated Wisdom literature in general is metaphorical, and even allegorical, so it would be precarious to take it too literally. Should we be just as cautious with “the Word” here? In other words, have we been taking an intended metaphor or allegory too far, in asserting a literal, personal “Word” alongside God (the Father)? The answer will come as we progress.

Jesus Christ, the Son also Agent of Creation?

There are other NT Scriptures which speak of an agent in creation. Since most scholars are of the opinion that John’s Gospel was written late in the first century (I agree with this assessment), it would seem reasonable to assume that the Gospel writer was aware of at least some of these texts. Moreover, if The Gospel According to John is part of sacred Scripture—and it is, of course—then we should take it as Holy Spirit inspired, “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16). That is, the Holy Spirit would have superintended John’s writing and likely have led him to associated Scripture to allude or refer to.

With this in mind, in First Corinthians 8:6 we find God the Father and Jesus Christ in a context about creation: “for us there is but one God, the Father, from Whom are all things [ta panta] and for Whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through Whom are all things [ta panta] and through Whom we exist.” Similarly, in Colossians 1:16 we find of Jesus Christ, the Son: “For in Him all things [ta panta] were created in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible—whether thrones or dominions, rulers or authorities—through Him and for Him all things have been created and stand created.”19 Finally, in Hebrews 1:2 it is said of the Father that “through” the Son He “made the ages”.  Obviously, there is some sort of overlap between “the Word” and Jesus Christ, the Son, for both cannot be the sole agent of creation.

But there are even more Scriptures in this vein. In John 17:5 Jesus is recorded making a request to the Father to return to the glory they shared “before the world existed”, and in 17:24 Jesus states that the Father loved Him “before the world’s foundation”.  In Revelation 3:14, John records the glorified Jesus referring to Himself as ἡ ἀρχὴ τῆς κτίσεως τοῦ θεοῦ, hē archē tēs ktiseōs tou theou, the Beginning of the creation of God, or, in better English, the Beginning of God’s creation. It could even be understood the Originator,20 or, the Ruler of God’s creation. Since Jesus of Nazareth, Christ Jesus, is verifiably a historical person, we are assured that these Scriptures just referenced are not mere allegory. Moreover, “the Word” and Jesus Christ seem in some way to be the same person; and, given this, apparently “the Word” is not allegorical.  But does this indicate Jesus Christ was and is a precreation Being? That answer will become evident a bit later in the prologue.

In Him was Life, the Light of Humanity

Continuing to v. 4:

ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἦν, καὶ ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων
en autō̧ zōē ēn, kai hē zōē ēn to phōs tōn anthrōpōn
in Him/it life was, and the life was the light of (the) men
In Him was life, and that life was the light of humanity

This is fairly straightforward. Like 1:1a, the initial clause places the predicate en autō̧ (dative case, indirect object) first, which means that “life” is the subject here. Thus, we could rearrange it Life was in Him.

But there are two different ways of interpreting v. 4. First, it could be understood In the Word was life, and that life, which came to exist as a result of His mediatorial work in the creation event, was the light of humankind—an allusion to Genesis 2:7. The second way it could be construed is In the Word was life, and that life was the light of humankind—light to those who come to renewed life as a result of believing in Him/His name (1:7, 12; 20:31). The verb used throughout 1:3 (γίνομαι, ginomai) is also found in 1:12, yet in the latter it means not come-to-be, as in from nothing to something, but become, as in from ‘this’ to ‘that’ (cf. 5:24—from death to life).

If one had to choose between the first or second interpretation, perhaps the latter would be a better fit, given the larger context. However, I submit that the Gospel writer fully intended both meanings. A newcomer to John’s Gospel—though one well-versed in the Tanakh (OT)—on first reading would see Genesis 1-2 here, the initial creation event, and nothing more. But a subsequent reading would reveal the deeper meaning.

Given the presence of the article before each of the nominatives (hē and to, respectively) in the second part of this statement—kai hē zōē ēn to phōs tōn anthrōpōn—it is fully convertible, in which the subject “the life” and the predicate “the light of humanity” are interchangeable (A = B / B = A). Accordingly, in the Word is “the life”, and in the Word is “the light of humanity”. As we noted earlier, Word is masculine in gender, however, life is feminine, while light is neuter. These gender distinctions will prove to be important.

While “life” is mentioned only here in the prologue—and only in 1:4 and 8:12 in conjunction with “light”—this term is a central aspect of John’s Gospel. The referent in the prologue is the Word, yet in the rest of The Gospel According to John it is most often in relation to Jesus Christ, and the majority of these instances are in regard to eternal life. Somewhat ironically and somewhat paradoxically, the One who lays down His ‘life’ (psychē) (10:11-18; 15:13) is the One who provides eternal life (zōē aiōnios)—as the Son of Man (3:14-15), the Son of God (3:16; 5:21, 24, 29, 39-40; 10:28; 12:25, 50), or as both (6:27-68)—to those who believe in His name (1:12; cf. 20:31). This eternal life is also known as “living water” (4:10-14), provided by Jesus Christ, the Messiah (4:25-26). Thus, we have another direct connection between the eternal Word and the temporal Jesus.

Somewhat similar to the way in which First (Ethiopic) Enoch is directly referenced in Jude (Jude 1:14-15 > 1 Enoch 1:9) or alluded to (Jude 1:6 > 1 Enoch 10:4, 12),21 “life” finds points of contact with extra-Biblical Wisdom literature here.22 In some of these works both Wisdom (cf. Prov. 3:18; 13:14) and Torah (cf. Deut. 4:1; 8:1) provide or personify life.23 An example of the former is in Sirach 4:12: Whoever loves [Wisdom] loves life, and those who arise early for her will be filled with joy. An example of the latter is in Sirach 17:11: [The Lord] grants them knowledge and the Law of life is distributed to them.

Baruch (aka 1 Baruch) has a self-contained Wisdom poem in 3:9—4:424 (3:12: fountain of Wisdom), in which Wisdom is to be found in the Torah, the Law that exists forever (ὁ νόμος ὁ ὑπάρχων εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα, ho nomos ho hyparchōn eis ton aiōna), and those embracing it will receive life (4:1). Conversely, those who forsake the Wisdom found in the Torah will die (4:1).

But are these exact parallels, or do they function as background? Or do they provide the means by which to a make a qal vachomer argument—an argument from the lesser to the greater? This will be revealed later in the prologue.

That Which Had Come to Be in Him was Life

As mentioned earlier, the grammar is ambiguous in 1:3-4 to the extent that it is possible to pair ho gegonen at the end of v. 3 with the first clause of v. 4. This is the way it was interpreted in the writings of the ante-Nicene age (before the Council of Nicea in 325 AD) and in the earliest punctuated Greek manuscripts25 (which include C and D—the earlier P66, P75, ℵ, A, and B do not contain any punctuation; the image of P75 in the Introduction is an illustration of this). An example of this interpretation is found in Hilary of Poitiers (c. 310 – c. 367):

“That which was made in him was life.” That which was in him was certainly not made without him, for that which was made in him was also made through him. All things were created in him and through him . . . None of the things that were created in him was made without him, for he is the life that made their creation possible.26

Hilary seems to be emphasizing that not only were all things made through the Word, but all was made in Him (cf. first clause of Col. 1:16 [en autō̧], and last clause of Col. 1:16 [di’ autou]); that is, the Word was not an intermediary, not a mere conduit of God (cf. Col 1:16 [eis auton]).

Some specifics in the grammar of 1:3-4 need to be explained in order to engage with other possible interpretations. The relative pronoun (ho) governing gegonen is a neuter singular nominative. The pronoun in en autō̧ is a 3rd person singular masculine/neuter; in other words, the dative (indirect object) form of the personal pronoun is the same for masculine or neuter referents. Also, all finite verbs encode number and person (but not gender)—in the case of ēn (“was”) here, it is 3rd person singular. This means that in finite verbs the subject is automatically implied, though the reader must look to the context, since gender is not expressed in the verb.27 Thus, the grammar yields two additional possibilities, though the meaning is essentially the same:

That which had come to be, in Him [the Logos as dative of cause] was the life (for it).
That which had come to be, in it He [the Logos as implied subject for the verb ēn] was the life.28

Rearranging the twisted syntax into perhaps better English:

That which had come to be, (its) life was in Him.
That which had come to be, He [the Logos] was the life in it.

This interpretation understands logos as life source. Also, implied in the above, the Word is the ever-continuing cohering and sustaining power of all that exists—a parallel to Colossians 1:17 and Hebrews 1:3. Keener cites one writer who begins with kai in v. 3, taking that in conjunction with the first clause of v. 4, making this into one sentence: [and] nothing came into being without him that exists in him; he was life.29

Another variation in this vein is to understand ho gegonen is a reference to the new creation “in Him”—a narrowing down of all creation to include only those who believe in His name—such that That which had come-to-be-in-Him was life.30

One of the reasons for conjoining ho gegonen with en autō̧ zōē ēn is based, in part, on ‘staircase parallelism’. In this literary device, the predicate of the first line becomes the subject of the next, and so forth. The Gospel writer does seem to employ this device in the first five verses, thus providing evidence for taking ho gegonen with what follows it.

Early Non-Christian Interpretations

But it appears that at least some fourth and fifth century (and later) interpreters who changed to (or preferred) the punctuation which is now found in most modern translations were responding to heretics claiming it was the Holy Spirit described as “that which had been created”.31 This is possible grammatically, given the neuter singular relative pronoun preceding gegonen. Thus, one could interpret this sentence as That which had come to be [aka The Spirit], in Him [the Word] was the life (for it).  Assuming the post-Nicene punctuation was to counter this claim, this need not have been, as neither the immediate nor the larger context has the Holy Spirit in view at all, thereby rendering such an interpretation a clear example of eisegesis, and easily refutable on that basis.

However, some fourth century Arians interpreted it yet another way, by understanding that it was the Word’s “life” that had come-to-be, which would indicate that the Word had undergone a change, and thus could not be equal to the Father. But, what about that neuter relative pronoun preceding gegonen?32 This clearly refers to what is described by the verbal action earlier in v. 3 (egeneto, “came-to-be”), all things which had come through the Word. But the Arian interpretation was apparently such that egeneto meant “become” in the sense of from ‘this’ to ‘that’. With this in mind, “all things” must have been in some form prior to the Word’s creative action. Thus, through the Word’s own creative action, all things were transformed, which would include the Word Himself, who was transformed such that the result was “life in Him”. In short, when the Word was with God in the beginning (John 1:1-2), the Word existed in one form; and subsequent to that, the Word underwent some sort of metamorphosis when all things came-to-be through Him, such that His form had fundamentally changed.

But just like the above in which the Holy Spirit is interpreted as the referent, one must question whether this interpretation is valid contextually. Although the Word is certainly in the immediate context, construing the Word as undergoing change seems a bit forced. For the moment, for the sake of discussion, we will grant the Arian position that v. 3 is describing a metamorphosis of what could be described as pre-creation matter (rather than creation ex nihilo). According to this view then, all things became transformed through the Word and not even one thing became transformed apart from the Word. But it seems a bit odd to think that the Agent of this metamorphosis of creation would Himself be affected by the transformation He effected. Are we to think the Word is a created entity? Is the Word really Wisdom after all—the first created thing? In 1:1-2 is the beginning referring to a pre-creation period, understood to be the foundation, which would subsequently undergo a metamorphosis in v. 3?

This all sounds very plausible until we dig a bit further. While John 17:24 records Jesus describing the love the Father had for Him before the world’s foundation, John 17:5 records Jesus’ request to the Father that He regain the glory they shared before the world existed. If this should fail to persuade the reader, Colossians 1:16 specifically uses κτίζω, ktizō—which means create, build—in reference to the Son’s activity in relation to “all things”. Therefore, the Word cannot be understood to be a created entity, and it stands to reason that 1:3 refers to creation ex nihilo. So, once again, if the post-Nicene punctuation arose in response to this Arian interpretation, it seems an unnecessary change.33

Modern Day Interpretations

Despite the fact that the ante-Nicene punctuation is found in the Critical Text (CT, currently the NA28/UBS5)—the Greek text upon which the modern English translations are largely based (see period/full stop after ἕν here)—the newer versions overwhelmingly depart from the CT here, placing the stop after ho gegonen, rather than before it. Below is a page showing John 1:1-5 from the 1961 The Greek New Testament specifically used for the New English Bible (NEB) translation, a version that failed to gain wide acceptance, which preferred the ante-Nicene punctuation.34

NEB John 1

Greek text for John 1:1-5 in NEB 1961

The superscripted cursive a just before ἕν (hen) in v. 3 points to a footnote reference illustrating the option of putting the stop after ἕν (hen) instead—an option the NEB 1961 rejected. Here is the corresponding page in the English version:35

NEB 1961 John (2)

John 1:1-5 in NEB 1961. Photocopy courtesy Tricia Tillin at http://www.birthpangs.org

Similarly, the New Revised Standard Version uses the ante-Nicene punctuation.

But it may not be necessary to choose one over against the other. As stated above, my position is that John the Gospel writer intended ambiguity such that more than one meaning is to be derived—as opposed to can be derived. Assuming this is correct, this would be an example of intentional amphiboly, in which this section of the prologue is intentionally multi-syntactic, syntactically ambiguous. That is, given the syntax, there is more than one correct way to punctuate, yielding multiple meanings in context. In addition, the writer intended it to be poly-semantic, as in “life” here refers to all creation in a global sense, and, alongside this, “life” refers only to the new creation. Stated another way, ho gegonen is meant both to complete the thought in v. 3 (put a period after ho gegonen, as shown in this 1904 Greek text) and to begin the phrase of the first clause of v. 4 (put a full stop before ho gegonen) such that the reader can and should take it both ways, yielding more than one interpretation.36 And, in a sense, the staircase parallelism remains intact in the Greek—no matter how one reads or punctuates the English.37

This amphiboly provides an apt segue into the latter part of v. 4, in which the light of humanity can be understood broadly (cosmologically), as in sunlight (light for humanity), or as a narrowing down (soteriologically) to include only those who believe in His name. This then sets up the next verse.

The Light Not Mastered by the Darkness

καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει, καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν.
kai to phōs en tȩ̄ skotia̧ phainei, kai hē skotia auto ou katelaben.
And the light in the darkness shines, and the darkness not overcome/understand
The light shines in the darkness, yet the darkness did not apprehend it.

Carson calls 1:5 “a masterpiece of planned ambiguity”.38 Once again, a newcomer to John’s Gospel would likely only see the creation event of Genesis 1-2 here. But, of course, the Gospel writer intends much more than that.39

The final verb is a compound word consisting of the preposition kata and the verb lambanō. The former means down, the latter take or receive, but as with many words prefixed with a preposition, the resulting word acquires intensification and an additional nuance. Its basic definition is grasp, as in either hostile (seize) or non-hostile (secure), though, alternatively, it can carry the idea of mental grasping (perceive).40 Danker asserts that the writer in this context intends the combined “sense of grasp as seize and comprehend.”41 The translation “apprehend” above is an attempt to capture this perceived polysemy.

The tense-form of the verb translated “shines” (present active indicative) conveys ongoing activity (imperfective aspect).42 Comparatively, the tense-form of the final verb “apprehend” (aorist active indicative) describes the action as a simple bounded whole, without regard for any ongoing activity (perfective aspect).43 This is also purposed for John’s overall conception, though it becomes more obvious on subsequent readings.

On first reading, one could understand all of 1:1-5 cosmologically, such that the darkness of Genesis 1:2 would not overcome the light of Genesis 1:3. But after having read through John’s Gospel, a subsequent reading of the prologue may prompt the reader to see an allusion to Genesis 3.44 More likely, the light/darkness dichotomy exhibited throughout the Gospel will bring the reader to perceive a connection between v. 5 and vv. 10-11.45 While the Light continued and continues to shine (imperfective aspect) in order to illuminate the darkness (8:12; 9:5), the darkness chose to remain in darkness (3:19-21), failing to comprehend the true nature of the Light (11:9-10; 12:35-36, 46).46 This failure of darkness encompasses the entire temporal sphere—for all time. Those in darkness can be brought to the Light through the continuous shining of the Light, but the darkness itself remains.

In both Jewish and Greek milieus antithesis was a common rhetorical device.47 This fact likely accounts for the Gospel writer’s use of the light/darkness motif (and other dichotomies). While the writer would cease from using life in the prologue, he would continue to use the Light as an apparent substitute for the Word.

[Go to John 1:6-8.]

——————————————————–

14 See Westcott, St. John, para 1512-1537 [ADDITIONAL NOTES on Chap. 1:3-4.]; cf. Brown, John I-XII, pp 6-7.

15 While I could not initially find confirmation for this hypothesis in any of the commentaries I consulted, I was delighted to see the following expressed in Comfort, Text and Translation Commentary: “[S]ince the prologue is poetic, it is possible that John intended ambiguity; thus, it is not a question of which reading is correct . . . ancient readers could read it either way and still make sense of it” (p 252). Amen!

16 See Harris, John, EGGNT, p 22.

17 In Revelation 4:11 the ultimate Creator of all things is the One Who sits on the Throne: ὅτι σὺ ἔκτισας τὰ πάντα, καὶ διὰ τὸ θέλημά σου ἦσαν καὶ ἐκτίσθησαν, hoti sy ektisas ta panta, kai dia to thelēma sou ēsan kai ektisthēsan, “. . . for You created all things—because of Your Will they came to exist, they were created” (my own translation, as is all Scripture throughout). Cf. Rev. 10:6; Acts 14:16.

18 The Hebrew in Proverbs 8:22 is the verb qānānı̂, which means possess, buy, or create, while the LXX (aka, Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT by Jewish scholars ca. 200BC) uses ktizō, which means create, build, found (as in “foundation”).  The word being here is in quotes because the language appears to be allegorical, not literal, with Wisdom personified (cf. Prov. 3:15-18) though not an actual person. Though some English versions apparently translate from the Hebrew (rather than the LXX), translating the verb as possess, this indicates an interpretative choice that does not necessarily mean God did not ‘acquire’ Wisdom at some point. Yet 8:23 reads (LXX): πρὸ τοῦ αἰῶνος ἐθεμελίωσέν με ἐν ἀρχῇ, pro tou aiōnos ethemeliōsen me en archȩ̄, “before the ages I was established—in the beginning”. But the verb here means either found or establish, and in either case, the connotation is some sort of generative event (the verb in 8:25 [LXX] is “beget”). Both Keener (Gospel of John, pp 1.367-369) and Brown (John I-XII, p 522) assert that Wisdom here is a creation.

19 In Him I take as locative, rather than instrumental. See Constantine R. Campbell, Colossians and Philemon, BHGNT (Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2013), p 11; cf. Murray J. Harris, Colossians and Philemon, EGGNT (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2013): “[A] . . . local sense is to be preferred. ‘All things in heaven and on earth’ were created in God’s beloved Son (v. 13), not in the sense that he was the preexistent or ideal archetype of creation but in the sense that creation occurred . . . ‘within the person of’ Christ. In his person resided the creative energy that produced all of creation . . . “(p 40). This, I think, is to be compared and contrasted with dia and eis used at the end of this verse, which clearly refer to the Son as both agent of creation and the one for whom all things were created, respectively. That is, though a human person as part of creation could not possibly have been agent of creation (thus, in Him), in some sense the Son was the agent of creation. Within the Son resided the creative power used in the creation event, yet all things have been created and stand created through Him, though also for the Son (see Harris, Colossians and Philemon, p 41). A paradox.

20 Keener, Gospel of John, specifically calls ἡ ἀρχή here, “a divine title signifying the originator of creation” (p 1.366, nt 14).

21 Thanks to Steve Delamarter’s handy A Scripture Index to Charlesworth’s The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), p 47, for providing quick reference.

22 See Keener, Gospel of John, pp 1.300-301, 350-363, 367-369, 386; cf. Brown, John I-XII, pp 519-522.

23 Keener, Gospel of John, p 1.386.

24 David A. deSilva, Introducing the Apocrypha: Message, Context, and Significance (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002), pp 198-199.

25 Westcott, St. John, paragraph 1516 [notes at end of chapter 1]. Westcott did not have P66 and P75 at the time, for these papyri were not discovered until the 1950s. While Westcott claims that A includes punctuation, both Comfort (Text and Translation Commentary, p 252) and Metzger (Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. [Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft/German Bible Society, 1994], p 167) claim it does not.

26 “On the Trinity 2.20,” in Joel C. Elowsky, ed. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament, IVa: John 1-10, Thomas Oden, gen. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006), p 23; emphasis in original.

27 This means that a finite verb can function as a complete sentence by itself.

28 See Bultmann, Gospel of John, pp 38-40. The verb ἦν here should be understood as inceptive.

29 Keener, Gospel of John, 1.382. Here Keener refers to an article by Peter Van Minnen: “The Punctuation of John 1:3—4”, Filologia neotestamentaria 7, no. 13 (1994): 33-41.

30 See Brown, John I-XII, p 7.

31 See Chrysostom, “Homilies on the Gospel of John, 5-1-2”, in Elowsky, p 23; cf. Metzger, Textual Commentary, p 167.

32 On the surface, another possibility emerges in the grammar. Given that the earliest manuscripts did not contain any punctuation, the lone omicron (Ο, transliterated ho) could be construed as a masculine definite article (instead of a neuter relative pronoun), making the Word its antecedent. But this would be a grammatical anomaly, and highly unlikely; see Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), pp 237, 62-64.

33 While Brown, John I-XII, does not offer an opinion on this change in punctuation, both sides are briefly discussed (p 6); cf. Comfort Text and Translation Commentary, p 252. Comfort, Text and Translation Commentary, also notes that P66 does not include the en before autō̧, either by accident (ΟΓΕΓΟΝΕΝΕΝΑΥΤΩ becomes ΟΓΕΓΟΝΕΝΑΥΤΩ through homoeoteleuton—omission because a series of letters are duplicated, causing the less than careful copyist to miss the second set), or on purpose to make the text less likely to be interpreted as per the Arians. In any case, the resultant text would more clearly be understood That which has come to be by Him was life.

34 R. V. G. Tasker, ed., The Greek New Testament: Being the Text Translated in The New English Bible 1961, Edited with Introduction, Textual Notes, and Appendix (Oxford and Cambridge: Oxford UP and  Cambridge UP, 1964), p 140. Importantly, neither P66 nor P75 were available to the translation committee.

35 C. H. Dodd, ed., The New English Bible: New Testament (Oxford and Cambridge: Oxford UP and Cambridge UP, 1961). Though the NEB, in its germination stage, was initially intended to be a revision of the English Revised Version (1885—translation committee included both B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort), the committee instead decided on making a completely new Greek text from the now more widely available Greek manuscripts (and other language versions). In 1970, an update included the Apocrypha: C. H. Dodd, ed., The New English Bible with the Apocrypha (Oxford and Cambridge: Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press, 1970). Below is John 1:1-5, including the footnote on the division regarding the syntactical variation of 3-4:

NEB 1970 John (2)

John 1:1-5 in NEB 1970. Photocopy courtesy Tricia Tillin at http://www.birthpangs.org

36 Along with Comfort’s amenability to this stance (see note 15 above), Köstenberger (John, BECNT, p 30 nt 32) cites T. L. Brodie, The Gospel according to John: A Literary and Theological Commentary (New York: Oxford UP, 1993), as confirming the position adopted here, understanding this text “as inherently ambiguous and as being ‘part of a careful literary strategy’ designed to focus on ‘the continuity between creation and the incarnation, between creation and redemption’” (p 138). I will agree with Brodie here, except his understanding that the Incarnation is part of this context. Note that Köstenberger himself sides with most modern commentaries and most modern versions.

37 Although the majority of the committee in Metzger’s Textual Commentary preferred the ante-Nicene punctuation, Metzger himself strongly opposed it. Those of the committee in favor of the rendering explain: “[It] is in accord with what a majority regarded as the rhythmical balance of the opening verses of the Prologue, where the climactic or ‘staircase’ parallelism seems to demand that the end of one line should match the beginning of the next” (p 167). In his bracketed response, Metzger rejects staircase parallelism here as “present in only a portion of the Prologue, and may not necessarily involve ὃ γέγονεν” (pp 167-168). While Metzger is correct that this particular parallelism is not in use for the entire prologue, it does seem to be a feature of the first five verses. To further support his stance, Metzger notes that the post-Nicene punctuation which results in v. 4 beginning with ἐν αὐτῷ is characteristically Johannine, while, in a footnote, he characterizes exegesis for the ante-Nicene punctuation as exhibiting “valiant attempts . . . to bring sense out of the passage” that are yet still “intolerably clumsy and opaque” (p 168). There is also a multi-witness textual variant replacing the first ἦν (“was”) in v. 4 with ἐστίν (“is”)—universally rejected (and rightly so, I opine) by the committee (p 168)—apparently in an attempt to smooth out a perceived difficulty in the ante-Nicene rendering. However, I think that understanding ἦν as inceptive alongside its inherent imperfective aspect (ongoing activity) would work just fine (while concomitantly construing the perfect ὃ γέγονεν as both conveying entry into the resultant state of what had-come-to-be, and the resultant state itself), thereby rendering unnecessary this change in verb tense. If this verbal interpretation is viable, this would provide a counter to those amenable to Metzger’s position. Nevertheless, if John were employing amphiboly intentionally—as I contend he is—most of these sorts of discussions would be rendered moot. Certainly, it is not unusual for a poem to begin a thought at the end of one line and continue it to the next; therefore, such attempts to try to fit the punctuation (or not) to the staircase parallelism seem unnecessary.

38 Carson, Gospel, p 119.

39 Carson, Gospel, states, “it is quite possible that John, subtle writer that he is, wants his readers to see in the Word both the light of creation and the light of the redemption the Word brings in his incarnation” (p 120).

40 Danker, Concise Lexicon, p 191.

41 Ibid. Emphasis in original. Cf. Keener, Gospel of John, p 1.387. Contra, e.g., Köstenberger, Encountering John, p 55, in which the author opines that “overcome” is the primary meaning, though “understand” may be ‘latent’ (my word) in the verse “in preparation of 1:10-11”.

42 See, e.g., Rodney J. Decker, Reading Koine Greek: An Introduction and Integrated Workbook (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2014), pp 224-225. An example: John was writing his Gospel. This indicates a process: John’s (then) ongoing activity of writing.

43 Ibid. Example: John wrote his Gospel. While this is past time, perfective aspect can be used for present or future—any temporal sphere. A good illustration for a long period of time is Romans 5:14: Death reigned from Adam to Moses. The example in our text can be interpreted a number of ways, to include what is called gnomic, in which the time period covers all of temporal existence.

44 See Brown, John I-XII, p 8. This understanding would indicate the aorist κατέλαβεν is reflecting a one-time past event.

45 See Barrett, St. John, p 158.

46 See Keener, Gospel of John, pp 1.382-387 for fuller discussion of light, including light as Wisdom and Torah; cf. Brown, John I-XII, pp 519-522.

47 Keener, Gospel of John, pp 1.386-387.

 

Probing the Prologue in The Gospel According to John: John 1:1-2

[See Introduction; John 1:3-5; John 1:6-8]

As mentioned in the Introduction, we are embarking on a journey through John’s prologue. The importance of a proper understanding of these first eighteen verses of The Gospel According to John is well-reflected in the words of this writer: “The most puzzling Johannine discourse is immediately illuminated by a re-reading of the Prologue”.1

Throughout the prologue, the Gospel writer makes plentiful use of imageries. We must be careful not to press them too sharply. For example, generally, analogies are often used to help explain abstract concepts, but the intention is strictly educational, rather than to provide exact parallels. Similarly, allusions are meant to illustrate a point of contact with other passages or works—to use them as literary backdrops—not as a way of stating ‘this is that’. As Rabbi Samuel Sandmel cautioned, we must be wary of “parallelomania”:

It would seem to me to follow that, in dealing with similarities we can sometimes discover exact parallels, some with and some devoid of significance; seeming parallels which are so only imperfectly; and statements which can be called parallels only by taking them out of context.2

In addition, we must be careful not to literalize metaphors or, conversely, take something intended in a literal sense and construe it as metaphorical. For example, if I were to say that I ‘broke my back’ in doing yardwork, you’d surely not take it literally. Correctly interpreting these literary devices is not always easy, however. Moreover, sometimes the writer is purposely ambiguous, thereby intending multiple meanings.

Beginning with “In the Beginning was the Word…”

Most Christians know the first verse in John’s Gospel, probably by rote: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. However, in the New Living Translation (NLT) the first section reads a bit differently: In the beginning the Word already existed. This rendition beautifully conveys the meaning in context.

For now, let’s attempt to take a fresh look at the text without imposing any meaning upon it. No worries—I’m not setting out to challenge the historically orthodox Christian understanding. My intent is both explanatory and apologetic. There are others interpreting this verse and the entire prologue (and of course Scripture in general) a bit differently, toward different ends. Are any of these other interpretations linguistically legitimate in any way? We’ll briefly test a few as we go.

For this series we will use the following pattern for exegesis. Each section will begin with the Greek text, which will be followed by its transliteration into English (Greek letter to English letter equivalents), then a very basic ‘word-for-word’ translation (to the extent possible), and, finally, a working translation. For John 1:1, we will identify each section as 1a, 1b, and 1c. Beginning with 1a:

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος3
En archȩ̄ ēn ho logos
In beginning was the logos
In the beginning was the Word

For apparent poetic purposes, the Gospel writer switched the subject (ho logos, nominative case) and the indirect object (En archȩ̄, dative case). In English this could be rendered The Word was in the beginning, which would not change the meaning one iota. But it wouldn’t be as poetic. We could even take the NLT translational idea and make this The Word existed in the beginning. However, in keeping with the poetic nature of the prologue, it seems best to retain the original order (though word order in Greek is much more flexible than English, which will be illustrated as we progress): In the beginning existed the Word. In better English: In the beginning the Word existed. This is what John’s Gospel is conveying.

Importantly, the verb used is ēn, as opposed to egeneto, “became”, “came into being” (as the Gospel writer will use in verse 3). In this “beginning” the Word already was existing. “The Word” didn’t come to be, the Word simply was. The Word existed. But what is “beginning” in reference to? The language certainly evokes the first verse in Genesis. And who or what is “the Word”? Some have suggested that “the Word” is an utterance of God. Is this position possible by the context? We’ll find out as we go further in the text.

Before going further, a few technical points need to be explained. As you can see above, logos is preceded by ὁ, ho. This is called the article. In some contexts it is roughly equal to the English definite article, “the”. Of course, English also has the indefinite article “a” or “an”. NT Greek only has one article. In Greek, nouns that are definite will many times be preceded by the article (matching the case and gender of the noun). Indefinite nouns do not have the article. Armed with this information a perceptive reader may ask, “Then why doesn’t archȩ̄ (“beginning”) have the article here”? Excellent question! It’s not uncommon for the article to be absent in prepositional phrases for definite nouns.

One other point: you may notice that one letter, ὁ, is transliterated by two—ho. This is because above the omicron (ο) is what is called the rough breathing mark. It resembles a backwards apostrophe. This indicates that the speaker should use an “h” sound before the vowel.

And the Word was with God

The writer uses the same verb (ēn) in all three sections, but with a different nuance in each. Let’s examine 1b:

καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν
kai ho logos ēn pros ton theon
and the logos was with the God
and the Word was with [the] God

With the existence of the Word established as “in the beginning” (yet to be defined ‘when’), we now find that this same entity known as “the Word” was “with God”. Here, the verb “was” (ēn) is used to indicate relationship. Of course “God” here is the same as “God” in the Old Testament (Tanakh), i.e., YHWH. Some think “God” in this context means the Trinity, though many others claim it means “God the Father”.4 Judging by the larger context and overall usage in John, and by the fact that “God” is prefaced by the article (ton) here, Harris asserts that it “could not refer to the divine essence or to the trinitarian God or to the Spirit”.5 It seems best to understand the referent as God the Father.

The word pros, a preposition, spatially illustrates “towards”, as in coming towards something or someone (see chart here). In other words, this definition applies in dynamic contexts (those indicating motion); however, the context of 1b seems best understood as static. In static contexts, when used with a direct object (ton theon, accusative case), pros carries the sense of the subject (ho logos) being positioned face-to-face toward something or someone.6 Yet when two or more persons are involved, some claim it implies communion, “in converse with”.7 In this context Danker defines it simply as a “marker of association, or relationship”, but this does not necessarily deny the implication of personal interaction of some sort.8 Importantly, this should not be pressed too far, as this specific grammatical construction does not imply reciprocity—that God is (also) ‘towards’ the Logos. Therefore, and the Word was with God is the best translation. Thus, so far we have:

In the beginning the Word existed, and the Word was with God the Father

As noted earlier, some are of the opinion that, with the use of “the Word”, the Gospel writer had the idea of an ‘utterance’ by God, or, more specifically, that the ‘word of the Lord’ is in mind here—that the context of John 1:1-3 implies God ‘speaking’ in an anthropomorphic sense9 (using human language to describe functions of God, for, of course, God does not have a mouth!). But this is not viable grammatically, as the context clearly indicates two separate, distinct entities.10 A tweaking of the text could make this admissible. Adhering closely to the poetic style, it would instead need to read something like “and the logos was out of/from God” (καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν ἐκ/ἀπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ, kai ho logos ēn ek/apo tou theou).11 But there are no such textual variants here; in fact, there are no variants whatsoever, in any extant manuscripts, for the first two verses of John’s prologue.

That’s not to say that ‘word of the Lord’ from OT usage is not necessarily part of the background. It undoubtedly is. However, the usage here is not parallel, so we cannot claim that this is the sole source, a perfect analogy, for the Gospel’s logos. A better analogy would be Wisdom (see Proverbs 8, for example). As we progress further in the prologue we will try to determine if a direct parallel for Wisdom is found.

And the Word was _________

Moving to 1c:

καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος
kai theos ēn ho logos
and God was the logos
and the Word was God

This will take a bit of explaining. First, notice that ho logos is in the nominative case (subject), as it is in each preceding section, and that it is also placed after the verb, just as it is in the very first section. Next, observe that theos, “God”, is also in the nominative case, yet the article (ho) is absent. (Ho is the article in the nominative case for masculine singular nouns, while ton is the article in the accusative.) If the article had been there, this statement would be a fully convertible A = B / B= A proposition, which would mean that the logos would be the same entity as ton theon in the previous part (such that ‘and God [the Father] was the Logos’ / ‘and the Logos was God [the Father]’). This, of course, would make nonsense out of the context.

In grammatical structures such as this one, the subject nominative is differentiated from the predicate nominative (the portion to the right of the verb in English sentences similar to this one; e.g., John is the President) by the presence of the article in the one and the absence of it in the other. Since logos has the article, it is the subject nominative. Thus: and the Word was God. Since we’re certain that “the Word” is not ton theon (God [the Father]) from the previous section, then what does “God” mean here in relation to “the Word” in 1c?

The New World Translation renders it “a god”, which is grammatically admissible; however, of course, this is not theologically congruent with Scripture as a whole. We’ll discuss this more below.

Westcott provides the most succinct explanation:

The predicate (God) stands emphatically first, as in John 4:24. It is necessarily without the article (θεός not ὁ θεός) inasmuch as it describes the nature of the Word and does not identify His Person . . . No idea of inferiority of nature is suggested by the form of expression, which simply affirms the true deity of the Word.12

To unpack Westcott’s words, first, he notes that the predicate, “God”, is emphasized by its placement at the beginning. This is also true of 1a, in which “In the beginning” is placed first. Westcott’s comparison with John 4:24 leads to his second point. In 4:24 the Greek reads πνεῦμα ὁ θεός, pneuma ho theos, spirit (the) God, God (is) spirit. The clause is verbless—not uncommon in Scripture—so, it is supplied in translation. With the presence of the article, we know “theos” is the subject, while “pneuma”, which lacks the article, is the predicate. Also, we can determine very quickly that both “a spirit” and “the spirit” are not valid translations. Simply, God is spirit; that is, God’s mode of Being is as spirit. God is a spirit Being. Similarly, “the Word” is not “a god” or “‘the’ God”—the Word’s essence, the Word’s nature, is as God, Deity.13 This is reiterated in Westcott’s last sentence.

One may contend that this should be understood as “divine” instead: and the Word was divine. While this captures the apparent qualitative emphasis the Gospel writer was aiming for, it’s too weak. The word used, theos, is a noun, while “divine” would more accurately be conveyed by the adjective theios. Thus, and the Word was (by nature) God.

So far, we have: In the beginning the Word existed, and the Word was with God the Father, and the Word was (by nature) God.

And the Word was the Agent of God?

Some strict monotheists would disagree with this, denying that “the Word” is actual Deity on par with YHWH, thus rendering 1c “and the Word was a god”, claiming this is a reference to OT usage in which the term “god” was a designation for kings or rulers acting as God’s agents. Psalm 82:6 is one example. This idea of agency, found in the Hebrew transliterated shaliaḥ (“agent”; sometimes sheliaḥ or shaliach), is analogous to a legal power of attorney (POA). The first shaliaḥ mentioned in the written Torah is Eliezer, who was sent by Abraham, though his role was limited to finding a wife for Isaac. This principle is also found in Moses, whose role was comparatively more expansive, as YHWH’s shaliaḥ. The shaliaḥ can act in place of the principal, as if s/he were the principal—in our present case “the Word” acting for God. As we will discover, this is not untrue; but, is this the entire truth?

According to those espousing this view, “the Word” is agent par excellence and can act wholly in place of God—even though He wasn’t God—to the point of having the ability to claim names associated solely with God, YHWH. Yet, in agency relationships the agent functions on behalf of the principal, and, for example, when signing documents using POA does so as agent. In other words, the agent cannot sign as the principal—the agent cannot sign the name or claim the same name as the principal, as if s/he really IS the principal. Certainly, Moses never claimed to be YHWH. However, could this be different for the Word as YHWH’s agent par excellence?

There is no precedent for this in any associated literature; and, moreover, why would one think that a mere man can act as agent for God to the extent of claiming to be God when inherently not God? In other words, how can the intrinsically not-God be God? Scripture implicitly and explicitly refuting this position will be found later, as we continue our investigation. Consequently, we’ll agree that the Word was the agent of God, yet at the same, the Word was Himself Deity, God.

Reiterating for Emphasis and Clarification

John 1:2 rephrases 1:1, but the intention is not merely to restate:

οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν
houtos ēn en archȩ̄ pros ton theon
this/he was/existed in beginning with (the) God
He was/existed in the beginning with [the] God

The astute student will quickly discern that all but the very first word have just been used in 1:1, to the extent that even the case endings are the same. But this verse is assembled a bit differently. With this rephrasing we are now assured that the “beginning” of 1a refers to the existence of the Word such that the Word existed along with God. Stated another way, this relationship between the Word (who was theos) and God existed in the beginning. That is, we are now certain that the three individual complete sentences making up the first verse are wholly integrated rather than disjointed in any way. In other words, it cannot be that in some “beginning” God existed and in another subsequent “beginning” the Word existed, whereby the Word’s existence came after God’s. No; the Word existed in the beginning with God.

Yet we still don’t have a solid reference point for “beginning”. However, that will become evident in verse (v.) 3.

In using the demonstrative pronoun (houtos, this one/He) in v. 2, any possible misunderstanding of 1c is lessened. The description of “the Word” just stated in 1c, referenced here by this pronoun—the one who was identified as theos in 1c—this one/He existed in the beginning with God. This further cements the Deity of “the Word”. Moreover, if one re-reads 1b through this clarification in v. 2, the equality between the Word and God is more clearly established: Both “the Word” and “God” were in existence during the same “beginning”.

The Word was an “it”?

Nonetheless, there are some who would still insist that the pronoun should be understood as “it”, rather than a separate personal Being. This position is such that “the Word” is merely a personification of God—despite the syntactical evidence presented above. Putting this linguistic evidence aside for the moment, it is possible to construe “the Word” as an “it” here; however, as we move forward, this position will be shown to be untenable, though this requires some grammatical explanation.

As noted earlier, the article must match the case and number of the noun it references. The same holds true for pronouns. In Greek, nouns are masculine, neuter, or feminine. The names for males are always masculine, and, similarly, the names for females are always feminine. Other nouns, however, are assigned any one of the three, irrespective of how we might think they should be gendered. The word for “spirit” (pneuma) is neuter; but, of course, Christians identify the Holy Spirit as masculine. The term for “world”, “universe” (kosmos) is masculine, while “earth”, “land” (gē) is feminine, though in English we understand each one as neuter. As we’ve found above, logos is masculine, but when the context is simply an utterance, English speakers would understand it as neuter.

With all this in mind, while associated pronouns for “the Word” must be masculine to match the gender of the noun, this does not necessarily mean the context illustrates the referent is actually masculine. That is, if ho logos or its pronouns refer to merely a word spoken or written, then we recognize it as neuter. But, if the context clearly indicates a masculine entity, then we recognize it as masculine. By carefully going through the prologue—the linguistic evidence already provided, along with additional linguistic evidence yet to be uncovered, as well as contextual factors and parallel passages—this contention for a neuter “Word” in the prologue will be refuted.

[Go to John 1:3-5]

——————————————-

1 Hooker, “John’s Prologue and the Messianic Secret,” p 45. The author consistently capitalizes “Prologue” throughout.

2 “Parallelomania,” Journal of Biblical Literature Vol 81 (1962): 1-13, p 7.

3 Greek text and transliterations courtesy Accordance / OakTree Software (version 11.2.5, 2017) using Novum Testamentum Graece (New Testament in Greek), Nestle-Aland 28th ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012).

4 This was covered in a footnote reference in previous CrossWise article “The Son of God Given Authority to Judge Because He is ‘Human’: A Study in John 5:27, pt 6, Conclusion”.

5 Harris, Prepositions, p 190.

6 Porter, Stanley, E., Idioms of the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. Biblical Languages: Greek 2 (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1994), pp 170, 171.

7 Harris, Prepositions, pp 190-192. Cf. Robertson, A. T., A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, 4th ed. (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1934 [1914]), who claims that “John…conceives the fellowship [as face-to-face] between the Logos and God” (p 625).

8 Danker, F. W., The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago, IL: Chicago, 2009), p 301 (1.d). Cf. Abbott-Smith, G., A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1981) which defines the term here as simply referring to “of close proximity, at, by, with”, comparing this context with Matthew 13:56 [“sisters with us”] and Mark 6:3 [“sisters here with us”] (p 383).

9 E.g., Eric H. H. Chang, The Only True God: A Study of Biblical Monotheism (self-published: Xlibris, 2009), who asserts that the Aramaic Memra as used in the Targums (commentary on Scripture) is the source for logos. In these Targums, while there may be a few instances in which their use is anthropomorphic, the majority of the Memra of Adonai occurrences are instead circumlocutions for the Divine Name—a way of speaking about YHWH without using His Name (see Keener, Gospel of John, 1.349-350.). Thus, instead of stating “YHWH did…” the Targums substitute, “the Memra of Adonai did…” This, of course, means that essentially Memra of Adonai = YHWH. While neither of these represents a personification (anthropomorphisms are just shy of personifications—an example of the latter is found in Paul’s description of creation in Romans 8:18-22), there are a few Targumic texts that could possibly be construed this way; but, we should question whether these few—to the extent they are personifications–represent enough to make this motif known to John’s audience.

10 Therefore, the context doesn’t allow for any of the Memra of Adonai circumlocutions for YHWH (see note 9).  Moreover, there is a lack of historical evidence to indicate that the Targums used Memra as personification in the first century (Keener, Gospel of John, 1.350) ; cf. Barrett, St. John, who calls this a “blind alley” (p 153). As we move along through the prologue other issues with Chang’s position will emerge by inference.

11 Using either of these prepositions mandates that “God” be in the genitive (hence, the different endings on the article and theos), rather than the accusative. This alternative reading, when viewed in the larger context, could also explicitly support the ‘eternal generation’ of the logos; but, as it is in Scripture—this particular context—filiation (eternal generation) is merely implicitly supportable (in other words, it isn’t refutable in this context).

12 Westcott, St. John, para 1113 [commentary on 1:1] (bold added).

13 This same construction is prevalent throughout John’s Gospel, and most times it is construed to indicate that the predicate is qualitative, as opposed to strictly definite or indefinite. Given this, and that the final clause of 5:27 contains this same predicate nominative-verb-subject nominative structure, a previous CrossWise article argued that the author’s intention was “son of man” (i.e., ‘human’) rather than “the Son of Man” in John 5:27.

Probing the Prologue in The Gospel According to John: Introduction

[See John 1:1-2; John 1:3-5; John 1:6-8]

At the Beginning is the Prologue

For years I’ve had a fascination with John’s Gospel. As someone who is self-learning NT (Koine) Greek, I find it helpful that the Gospel writer uses rather simple language. However, while the Greek text itself is not difficult, The Gospel According to John is resplendent in literary devices, resulting in a multi-layered document. Some of these nuances in the Greek are not self-evident in translation.

The first eighteen verses in The Gospel According to John are particularly rich in meaning and poetry. Most call John 1:1-18 the prologue, this prologue serving as an overture for what is to be found in subsequent sections of the Gospel. A brief sketch provided in this overture is later amplified in the symphony of the main text. Thus, a full comprehension of the prologue is paramount to apprehending John’s Gospel. With this in mind, I will be doing a series on these all-important first eighteen verses which begin the wonderful journey into The Gospel According to John, focusing on the Greek text and its English translation.

Before the Beginning

Like the three Synoptic Gospels, John’s Gospel has an inscription preceding the Gospel proper. Since the original NT writers did not usually include titles, these inscriptions were not necessarily part of the original text but became part of scribal tradition. In the newest Critical Text—the NT text recognized as most likely original (UBS5/NA28)—is the word ΚΑΤΑ (in majuscule [akin to capital letters], as found in the earliest manuscripts; in minuscule as κατα in later manuscripts) followed by the name associated with the Gospel: ΚΑΤΑ __________. This means simply, “According to __________”. However, this rendering has been based on the evidence found in only two early manuscripts, while there are quite a few later manuscripts that provide a fuller inscriptio—using John’s Gospel as an example, ευαγγελιον κατα Ιωαννην, euangeliov kata Iōannēn, Gospel According to John. Overall, I might be inclined to agree to exclude “Gospel”, except for the fact that in the 1950s two important manuscripts were unearthed (P66, P75), both containing portions of John, with each one including the longer inscription. Thus, I shall call John’s Gospel The Gospel According to John. Throughout this series, however, I will substitute the longer inscription for “John’s Gospel”, “the Gospel”, John, or other such designations.

Below is a page from P75, illustrating the longer inscription. As a side note, this is also unique in that The Gospel According to John begins on the same page that Luke’s Gospel ends. Notice how Luke ends with the same verbiage in its subscription (except name, of course) as John:

ΕΥΑΓΓΕΛΙΟΝ
ΚΑΤΑ
ΛΟΥΚΑΝ

P75 inscriptio

P75: First page of the Gospel According to John

Goal for this Series

Quite simply, my intention is to help the reader more fully comprehend the text, while at the same time provide an apologetic against some contrary interpretations. On the way, I’m certain I myself will gain a better understanding, for I always learn as I write. In some instances I will have to be technical, but the goal is to do so only in service of better comprehension, not merely to explain some technicality of no consequence or interest.

Greek is a highly inflected language, which means, for example, that words are spelled differently to match case and number. Using the Greek article as a specific example (which can be loosely understood as “the”, though not always translated into English), the article changes spelling depending on its use in relation to the subject, direct object, indirect object, or genitive (possessive). In addition, the singular is different than the plural. The reader need not learn these spellings, but just having a basic knowledge that this is how the Greek language functions will help to alleviate confusion.

Since points of grammar will need to be discussed, those readers who are a bit rusty with English grammar may find some of the material a helpful review.

In this introduction to the series I will provide a bibliography of works that have helped to broaden my understanding of John’s Gospel, though particularly the prologue. Since this will serve as the reference page for this entire series (footnotes will be used as necessary throughout when quoting from or paraphrasing specific portions of these works), I will likely add more to this list as I go. (This is not to say that I agree with all the authors below at every point, as, for example, Bultmann’s work is largely at odds with much of historic Christianity; however, material like this has helped to refine both my theology and my apologetics.)

Continue to John 1:1-2

General Bibliography:

Ashton, John, ed. The Interpretation of John, Issues in Religion and Theology 9 (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1986).

Ashton, John, Understanding the Fourth Gospel, 2nd ed. (Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 2007).

Barrett, C. K., The Gospel According to St. John: An Introduction with Commentary and Notes on the Greek Text, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978).

Bauckham, Richard J., Gospel of Glory: Major Themes in Johannine Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015)

Bauckham, Richard J., Jesus and the God of Israel (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008).

Bauckham R., and C. Mosser, eds., The Gospel of John and Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

Bauer, W., F. W. Danker, W. F. Arndt, and F. W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd. ed. (Chicago, IL: Chicago, 2000), aka BDAG.

Beasley-Murray, George R., John, Word Biblical Commentary, D. Hubbard, G. Barker, gen. eds. (Waco, TX: Word, 1987).

Blomberg, Craig L., The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001)

Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John I-XII, The Anchor Yale Bible; (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974).

Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, The Anchor Yale Bible; (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974).

Bruce, F. F., The Gospel & Epistles of John, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983)

Bultmann, Rudolf, The Gospel of John, transl. G. R. Beasley-Murray, Gen Ed., R. W. N. Hoare & J. K. Riches (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1971)

Carson, D. A., The Gospel According to John, Pillar New Testament Commentary, D. A. Carson, gen. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991)

Comfort, Philip W., New Testament Text and Translation Commentary (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2008).

Crisp, Oliver D., Divinity and Humanity (New York: Cambridge UP, 2007).

Crisp, Oliver D., God Incarnate: Explorations in Christology (London: T&T Clark, 2009).

Edwards, Ruth, Discovering John (London: SPCK, 2003).

Harner, Philip B., “Qualitative Anarthrous Predicate Nouns: Mark 15:39 and John 1:1” Journal of Biblical Literature 92 (1973): 75-87.

Harris, Murray J., John, Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament, Andreas J. Köstenberger & Robert W. Yarbrough, gen. eds. (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2015).

Harris, Murray J., Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012).

Hooker, Morna D., (1974) “The Johannine Prologue and the Messianic Secret,” New Testament Studies, 21, pp 40-58 doi: 10.1017/S00286888500008766

Hurtado, Larry W., Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003).

Keener, Craig S., The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume One (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, [2003] 2010 [1st softcover ed.]).

Keener, Craig S., The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume Two (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, [2003] 2010 [1st softcover ed.]).

Koester, Craig, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1995).

Köstenberger, Andreas J., Encountering John, Encountering Biblical Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1999).

Köstenberger, Andreas J., John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Moises Silva, ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004).

Leung, Mavis M., The Kingship-Cross Interplay in the Gospel of John: Jesus’ Death as Corroboration of His Royal Messiahship, (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011).

Lincoln, Andrew T., Truth on Trial: The Lawsuit Motif in the Fourth Gospel (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2000).

Malina, Bruce J., Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1998).

Martyn, J. Louis, History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel, 3rd ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2003).

Morris, Leon, The Gospel According to John, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971).

Morris, Thomas V., The Logic of God Incarnate (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1986).

Perschbacher, Wesley J., The New Analytical Greek Lexicon (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1990).

Rainbow, Paul A., Johannine Theology: The Gospel, the Epistles, and the Apocalypse (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2014).

Ridderbos, Herman, The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary, transl. J. Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, [1987] 1997).

Schnelle, Udo, Antidocetic Christology in the Gospel of John transl. Linda M. Maloney (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1992; translated from the German Antidoketische Christologie im Johannesevangelium, copyright © Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 1987).

Smith, D. Moody, Johannine Christology: Essays on its Setting, Sources, and Theology (Columbia, SC: USC Press, 1984).

Thompson, Marianne Meye, John: A Commentary, New Testament Library, C. Clifton Black, et al eds. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2015).

Thompson, Marianne Meye, The God of the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001).

Weiss, Harold, Meditations on According to John: Exercises in Biblical Theology (Gonzalez, FL: Energion, 2014).

Westcott, B. F., The Gospel According to St. John, Westcott’s Commentaries on the Gospel of John, Ephesians, Hebrews, and the Epistles of John; Accordance electronic ed. version 1.5 (Altamonte Springs: OakTree Software, 2006).