One Composer’s Conception of Time

“I saw a mighty angel descending from heaven, clad in a cloud, having a rainbow upon his head. His face was like the sun, his feet like pillars of fire. He placed his right foot on the sea, his left foot on the land; and, supporting himself on the sea and the land, he raised his hand heavenward and swore by the One Who lives forever and ever, saying: ‘There shall be no more time, but in the day of the trumpet of the seventh angel the mystery of God shall be consummated.’”

– Apocalypse of St. John, 10:1–2, 5–71

So begins Olivier Messiaen’s preface to his Quartet for the End of Time (Quatuor pour las Fin du Temps). We might call it the prologue or the prelude to his preface, for this excerpt from Revelation (aka Apocalypse of Jesus Christ) provides the sole inspiration for the entire piece.

The quartet here is unusual in that it is not the typical string quartet (two violins, viola, and cello), instead consisting of piano, violin, cello, and clarinet. Messiaen finished composing this chamber music work while imprisoned during World War II. A sympathetic guard provided the needed materials for the captive composer. Quartet for the End of Time premiered in Stalag VIII-A in Görlitz, Germany (modern day Zgorzelec, Poland).

In his preface he describes how the composition’s “musical language” evokes time, timelessness, and eternity:

Certain modes, realizing melodically and harmonically a kind of tonal ubiquity, draw the listener into a sense of the eternity of space or infinity. Particular rhythms existing outside the measure contribute importantly toward the banishment of temporalities. (All this remains mere striving and stammering if one ponders upon the overwhelming grandeur of the subject!)2

By “[p]articular rhythms existing outside the measure” the composer means irregular rhythms; in some sections the number of beats per bar (measure) varies. In the first movement, for example, one instrument is assigned notes/chords to be played at specific intervals, while another is given different notes to be played at different intervals.3 Such intermixing represents “the banishment of temporalities”.4 These musical effects express time nearing its end, after which it will segue into eternity.

The composition consists of eight movements, two of which center on Christ. The first of these, the much-lauded fifth movement, is titled “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus”. The composer explains:

Jesus is here considered as one with the Word [Logos]. A long phrase, infinitely slow, by the cello magnifies with love and reverence on the eternality of the powerful and gentle Word, “whose years will never cease.” Majestically, the melody unfolds at a sort of distance, both tender and supreme: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

As I understand the composer, he appears to recognize that the earthly Jesus (the Word become flesh) preexisted as the Word. That is, there is continuity in the ‘Person’ of “the Word” and the Person of Jesus Christ. At the same time, then, he seems to correctly recognize that Jesus is coextensive with the Word only at the point of the Incarnation. Before that point in time the Word was not with flesh, and the Word was simply “the Word”.

Thus, while the Word eternally exists, Jesus has a beginning in time—at the instant of Incarnation, at the Conception of the Virginal Birth. In other words, though the Word exists eternally, the Word began a new mode of existence at the Incarnation—as Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ—which did not alter His eternality. Stated another way, the Word has unbounded eternality; comparatively, Jesus Christ has bounded eternality—bounded at the moment of the Virginal Conception, when the Word took human nature unto Himself (see An Eternal Christological Conundrum).

The second movement exalting Jesus Christ is the final (eighth) one: “Praise to the Immortality of Jesus.”

Expansive violin solo as counterpart to the cello solo of the fifth movement. Why this second eulogy? It addresses itself more specifically to the second aspect of Jesus—to Jesus the man, to the Word made flesh, resurrected immortal in order to share His life with us. It is total love. Its slow ascent towards the highest pitch is the ascension of man towards his God, of the child of God towards his Father, of the divinized creature towards paradise.

In keeping with his Roman Catholic faith, it seems likely the composer has in mind Athanasius, whose words were revised a bit to become the pithy aphorism “God became man so that man could become God”. That Messiaen understood this not as a full-on capital ‘D’ Deification seems evident in the last sentence above, especially the French créature divinisée. This retains the Creator-creature distinction, for a creature cannot truly become “Divinized”—capital ‘D’. The created cannot become just like the Creator. That would be oxymoronic. We are ‘partakers of the Divine nature’ (2Peter 1:4), not wholly Deity, God.5

Coming full circle, one last aspect of Messiaen’s preface commands our attention: his translation/interpretation of time in the prologue/prelude. A quick search of various English translations finds quite a variety in Revelation 10:6. Of this, the composer states:

“There are people who understand [the Biblical passage as] ‘there will be no more delay.’ That’s not it. [Instead it is] ‘there will be no more Time’ with a capital ‘T’; that is to say, there will be no more space, there will be no more time. One leaves the human dimension with cycles and destiny to rejoin eternity. So, I finally wrote this quartet dedicating it to this angel who declared the end of Time.”6

His is an interesting interpretation. As for the translation, Messiaen is technically correct. Let’s look at the Greek (transliterated):

Hoti chronos ouketi estai
That time no-longer will-be
That time will be no longer
That time will no longer be
That there will be time no longer
That there will be no more time

The first Greek word, hoti, can be understood as “that”, followed by a statement, in narrative form, of what someone had said. Or it can be construed as the beginning of a quotation, as Messiaen construes it, along with a few English translations. Messiaen goes a bit further, though, by prefacing this statement by the angel with “saying” (French: disant), which is not in the Greek. The composer also capitalizes “Time” (French: Temps).

Those versions that render this either as a quotation of the angel as “There will be no more delay” or the narrator’s reporting of what the angel had said as that there will be no more delay are making interpretive decisions based on the larger context. It is beyond the scope of this blog post to go into more detail, but the reader is free to make any comment on this.

The composer follows the words accompanying movement VIII—and thus concludes his preface—with the same words he had used parenthetically earlier in the preface, this time without the parentheses: All this remains mere striving and stammering if one ponders upon the overwhelming grandeur of the subject!

In sum, Messiaen offers an intriguing take on the Revelation 10 passage, which then functions as a basis for his unique conception of time musically, as realized in his chamber music piece Quatuor pour las Fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time). That this piece was conceived and completed while a WWII captive makes it perhaps all the more intriguing.


1 As translated from Olivier Messiaen’s French, with the assistance of various online helps.

2 Again, as translated from Messiaen’s French, though comparing with the English translation in the CD  liner notes of RCA Victor Gold Seal (reissue of original 1976 RCA Red Seal), MESSIAEN Quatuor pour la Fin de Temps, Tashi (Peter Serkin, Ida Kavafian, Fred Sherry, Richard Stoltzman), 7835-2-RG, BMG Classics, © 1988 BMG Music. The translation in the above text above differs, e.g., in “the eternity of space or infinity” as compared to liner notes’ “the eternity of space or time” (the French is infini), and in “if one ponders upon” as compared to “if one compares it to” (French is songe à). The rest of the translations follow similar methodology.

3 See Lawrence University’s Gene Biringer’s “Analysis” tab here: I. Liturgie de cristal. Also, under the “Musical Elements” tab the author writes: [Heterophonic texture] can also describe certain polyphonic textures, like that of the first movement of Messiaen’s Quartet, in which there is no discernable relationship among some of the parts . . .  the violin and clarinet parts, which are meant to evoke birdsong, are so independent of the cello part and, especially, the homophonic piano part that they seem to occupy a wholly different sonic world . . . here four characters are speaking simultaneously, unresponsive and perhaps even oblivious to the others. Instead of a harmonious counterpoint between independent but related melodies, we hear a juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated ideas – a true heterophony.

4 For further—and better—explanation, see Peter Gutmann’s Classical Notes site, particularly here.

5 See Roman Catholic Catechism 460.

6 As quoted from the Lawrence University site (see Biblical Source tab) as found in Rebecca Rischin, For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet (New York, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003), p 51.

Today an Eternal Present was Unveiled in the City of David

Merry Christmas!

10 . . . The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid! Listen closely, for I proclaim to you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 Today your Savior—Who is Christ the Lord—was born in the city of David.”1

This is the day we celebrate the birth2 of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ,3 Jesus the Christ, the Messiah.4

Joy to the world! / The Lord is come! / Let earth receive her King. / Let every heart prepare Him room / and heaven and nature sing.

A bit over two millennia ago, the eternal Word5 became the eternal-temporal Theanthrōpos,6 the God-man.7 Deity came in humility, clothed in humanity, born in Bethlehem. God the Father loved the world so much that He provided His one, unique Son8 as a sacrifice for us all, by ‘lifting Him up’ on the cross,9 so that everyone who believes in Him would not  perish, but would gain eternal life,10 adopted as God’s children.11 This entrance into eternality begins the very moment of initial belief12 and will remain for the overcomers—those enduring until the end.13

This day we should, in reverential awe, commemorate this glorious, eternally present,14 eternal gift.15 We should remember this selfless, sacrificial gift16 every day—but especially today. Those temporal gifts we give and receive—largely in celebrations overshadowing the true meaning of this season, this day—those temporal gifts we exchange, some by compulsion, will perish. But not this gift. This gift, available to all, has already been given—at such cost!17 The Giver of this gift is Himself the Gift,18 Who seemingly perished forevermore after being crucified.19 Yet He rose again!20 And He lives yet still.21

But this gift is more of an exchange—though a very one-sided one at that. To receive the gift of Jesus’ substitutionary atonement22—in which He has already paid the due penalty for all mankind’s sins past, present, and future23—one must repent,24 turn to Jesus as Lord and Savior,25 and then ‘take up one’s cross daily’.26 This means obeying Jesus’ commandments27 and following His path, to the point of physical death, if necessary.28 However, even if following Christ directly results in temporal death (which is an inevitable eventuality whether following Him or not) one receives the much more valuable eternal life. Yet, even more, as part of this exchange one receives God’s indwelling Spirit29—the Holy Spirit, the paraklētos,30 the Spirit of Truth31—in Whom one possesses both the navigational compass and the strength to endure His pathway.

Yet Jesus’ requirements are not burdensome.32 When the Christ-follower inevitably sins33—and one easily does so when living by one’s own strength rather than by and in the Spirit34—He is quick to forgive the penitent.35

To those who believe in and follow the Messiah, His Resurrection guarantees this eternal present;36 but, it was the conception37 and subsequent birth38 of the Eternal-temporal39 providing the necessary precursor. As Christians, as Christ-followers, let us remember this day for the momentous and joyous occasion it was and is: the arrival of the Gospel in the Gift wrapped in strips of cloth lying in a manger.40 To those with opened eyes He was unveiled.41 To the blind He remained veiled, but to those blind subsequently receiving sight He was revealed.42

Let us not be side-tracked by the temporality of contemporary glitz and glamour. Let us not take this day for granted. Let us take it to heart. Let us take its inherent message to the outer extremities.43 Let us be God’s instruments through which this Gift is unveiled, blind eyes opened.

The world awaits.44


(If you think you might be experiencing a case of déjà vu, you are not exactly wrong. This is a lightly revised and slightly expanded version of an article I posted on Christmas day last year.)


1 Luke 2:10-11, my translation.
2 It is very unlikely, though, that December 25 is the actual day Jesus was born. See When was Jesus Born?
3 Luke 2:10-11; Matthew 1:25; cf. Micah 5:2.
4 John 1:41; 4:25.
5 John 1:1.
6 From Theos = God, anthrōpos = man.
7 John 1:14.
8 John 1:14; 3:16.
9 John 3:14 (cf. Numbers 21:8-9); John 12:32-33.
10 John 3:16-17; Romans 5:8; Ephesians 2:4; 1John 4:9-10.
11 John 1:12.
12 John 5:24-25.
13 Matthew 24:13; Revelation 2:7, 10-11, 17, 26-28; 3:5, 10-12, 19-21; 14:12.
14 John 1:1-3; Colossians 1:16-17; Hebrews 1:2-3.
15 Revelation 13:8; cf. Revelation 17:8. There is ambiguity in the syntax of the Greek in 13:8. Is it that the Lamb was slain before the foundation of the world (KJV, NIV, e.g.), or is it that certain names were not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world (ESV, NASB, e.g.)? [This implies there are yet others who were written in the book of life from the foundation of the world (cf. Rev 3:5).] One could harmonize this with the words whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world from 17:8 to resolve this, yet it seems difficult to have a book of life without the Life Giver’s substitutionary atonement (Hebrews 2:17) having been provided first. So maybe both are true? Resolution is not even found in John the Baptizer’s words in John 1:29 regarding the “Lamb of God” (cf. Rev 5:6-14), for the verb airōn, takes away, is a present active participle, which grammatically indicates durative action (imperfective aspect), but the temporal reference is unclear. Is it yet-future from the Baptizer’s words (in then-current context looking forward to the cross), or is John stating that it is already in effect? Relatedly, this verb airō can connote being taken ‘up’ as well as taken away, which can provide a bit of—likely intended—double entendre, polysemy. In other words, sins are taken up/away as He is taken up/away. This double meaning likely applies—unknowingly by the speakers and in ironical fashion with the benefit of hindsight—in John 19:15 when “the Jews” (hoi Ioudaioi) responded to Pilate’s statement “Here is your king!” with aron aron, staurōson auton, “Take up/away, take up/away; crucify him!” Their command resulted in Him being glorified (John 12:23; 13:31-32; 17:1) and thereby receiving the name above every name (Philippians 2:9-11; cf. What Did Pilate State in John 19:22?: Conclusion).
16 Philippians 2:5-8.
17 Hebrews 2:9-18; 4:15. Each and every one of us—at and beyond the age of accountability, at the least—has played his/her part in lifting Him up on that cross.
18 John 11:25; 14:6.
19 Matthew 27:48-50; Mark 15:36-37; Luke 23:36; John 19:28-30.
20 Matthew 28:1-15; Mark 16:1-8[20]; Luke 24:1-49; John 2:19-22; 10:17-18; 20:1-31; 1Corinthians 15:1-4.
21 Revelation 1:18.
22 Hebrews 2:14-18.
23 Romans 3:25-26; Hebrews 9:11-15, 26-28; 10:12, 19-24.
24 Matthew 4:17; Luke 3:8-14; Acts 2:38; 3:19; Romans 2:4.
25 But this cannot be done in one’s own strength; see the words of Jesus in John 6:44: No one is able to come to Me unless the Father, the One Who sent Me, draws him[/her].
26 Matthew 10:38-39; 16:24-26; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23-24; 14:27; John 12:25-26.
27 Matthew 4:17; 22:37-39; Mark 12:30-31; John 8:31-32; 13:34/15:12; 15:10; James 2:8-11; 1John 5:3.
28 Matthew 16:24-26. See What did Jesus mean when He said, “Take up your cross and follow Me”?
29 John 3:3-8; 14:17; Romans 8:15-17; 1Corinthians 2:12; 3:16; 6:19; 2Corinthians 6:16.
30 John 14:15-16:15; Acts 1:8; 2:1-39; 1John 4:1-6. See also Who is the Holy Spirit?
31 John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13; 1John 4:6; 5:6.
32 Matthew 11:28-30; 1John 5:3.
33 1John 1:8-10.
34 Galatians 5:16-26; 1John 1:6-8.
35 Hebrews 10:22-23; 1John 1:9-2:2.
36 1Corinthians 15:20-23.
37 Luke 1:34-35.
38 Luke 2:1-7.
39 John 1:1, 14.
40 Luke 2:10-12.
41 Luke 2:8-20.
42 John 9:1-41; 2Corinthians 3:14-18.
43 Matthew 28:19-20.
44 John 3:16-21, 31-36; Romans 8:18-27.

An Eternal Christological Conundrum

Though I don’t recall the source offhand, I remember reading that many pastors, preachers, and expositors are afraid to discuss the Trinity and Christology. They’re concerned about confusing congregations and readers. They’re concerned about misspeaking and, as a consequence, being branded a heretic.

And we’re all the poorer for it. The object of our faith—Jesus Christ, our Savior—gets short shrift. This results in audiences not conceiving the full grandeur of His Person. Some reduce the Divine Savior to the merely human. Conversely, some exalt Christ so highly they Deify His humanity. In this post we will focus on one aspect of the latter.

To this end, first, we’ll provide a brief definition of God, centering on His attributes. God is omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnipresent (all-present, everywhere at once). I think Thomas V. Morris provides the most succinct statement on the interrelationships and interworkings of these three attributes:

Perhaps the best understanding of the attribute of omnipresence is that of its being the property of being present everywhere in virtue of knowledge of [omniscience] and power over [omnipotence] any and every spatially located object [creation].1

Next, we’ll provide a framework for God’s mode of existence as compared to ours.

Time is an aspect of the created order. Yet God is transcendent, existing in the eternal realm, outside time and creation. There is no physicality in the eternal realm.

God, as a spirit Being (John 4:24), is not bound or impacted by the physical or time limits of creation and, thus, has the ability to interact with and within the created order. God lords over creation.2 He transcends time, creation’s necessary constituent.

But what is eternity, the eternal realm? And how does time, with its chronological series of events—the past, the ever-fleeting present, and the future—relate to eternity? Do the two intersect in any way? I have found no better explanation, and no better basis for exploration, than the words of Lewis Sperry Chafer:

…Whatever time may be and whatever its relation to eternity, it must be maintained that no cessation of eternity has occurred or will.  God’s mode of existence remains unchanged.  Time might be thought of as something superimposed upon eternity were it not that there is ground for question whether eternity consists of a succession of events, as is true of time.  The consciousness of God is best conceived as being an all-inclusive comprehension at once, covering all that has been or will be.  The attempt to bring time with its successions into a parallel with eternity is to misconceive the most essential characteristic of eternal things.3

This seems right to me. We cannot think of chronological order in eternity. We cannot impose our temporal thinking of past, present and future onto the eternal realm. We cannot impose temporality upon eternality.

Temporality can be conceived as akin to a number line. We can metaphorically place ourselves at an ever-moving zero for the ever-fleeting present time, while construing events left of zero (negative numbers) as the past, and events to the right (positive numbers) as the future.

Since our finite minds cannot conceive eternality, it would be impossible to construct any sort of analogy with any level of confidence. However, for the sake of simplicity, let’s consider it like the symbol for infinity, in the sense of being boundless or endless.

There is no beginning and no ending. Once you are metaphorically on the infinity loop—in the eternal realm—there is no past and no future. You will find no beginning and no end. There is no time, unless you wish to call it the eternal present. But I think even that distorts the reality, since it includes a time element. Perhaps better: once in the eternal realm you simply exist.

God is metaphorically on the infinity loop. God has unbounded eternality. By contrast, all those granted eternal life have bounded eternality. They are bounded at the point of entry. ‘After’ that (it’s difficult to refrain from temporal references!), they enjoy the same unbounded eternality as God.

Using the above framework, we can now discuss the Eternal-temporal: the Divine-human Person of Christ.

Starting with the Definition worked out at the Council of Chalcedon, we affirm—as the totality of Scripture demonstrates—that Jesus was/is fully God and fully human, possessing both a Divine nature and a human nature. This doctrine logically entails one important aspect: From our temporal perspective, Christ’s humanity began at a point in time (Virginal Conception).

On the other hand, His Deity is eternal, with no beginning and no end—no temporality. Accordingly, His Divine nature has unbounded eternality.

To keep things as simple as possible, we’ll borrow John the Gospel writer’s terminology. The Word, the Logos, was with God in the beginning, and the Word was God; the Word existed as God (John 1:1-2). The Word was the agent of all creation, for all things came to be—all things came into existence—through the Word (John 1:3). Then the eternal Word became the Eternal-temporal Word-made-flesh (John 1:14), i.e., Jesus Christ (John 1:17).

Putting this in temporal perspective, prior to year zero—the dividing line between BC (before Christ) and AD (anno Domini = “in the year of our Lord”)—the Word existed with no flesh. At year zero the Word acquired human flesh, instantaneously culminating in the Person of Jesus Christ, the Divine-human, the God-man. This begins the Incarnation (John 1:14). At that point the Divine Word became forever hypostatically united with human flesh.

Taking the previous paragraph and simplifying it, we could illustrate from a temporal perspective:

The Word w/out flesh > the Word w/flesh

Strictly speaking, the Word w/out flesh is not Jesus; Jesus is the Word w/flesh. That is, in the verbiage depicted in John 1:1-3 the Word could not have had flesh, for this describes pre-creation (John 1:1-2), followed by the creation event (John 1:3). At this point, clearly, the Word had no flesh and, thus, cannot rightly be called Jesus. We can certainly state, “Jesus had a pre-incarnate existence as the Word.” That is, there is continuity in the Person.

With this understanding, we would have to agree that Jesus Christ, aka the Word with flesh, has bounded eternality—bound at the moment of the Virginal Conception. To deny this is to unduly exalt Jesus to the point that He is super-human—in violation of Chalcedon. Correspondingly, we would have to affirm that the Word w/out flesh has unbounded eternality, in keeping with the “fully God” portion of Chalcedon.

Some might object that such strong distinctions illustrate the heresy of Nestorianism. But not necessarily. We can affirm that the Word with flesh, aka Jesus, has unbounded eternality in virtue of His Divine nature—which has existed and will continue to exist eternally, of course. Simultaneously, we can affirm that the Word with flesh, aka Jesus, has bounded eternality in virtue of His human nature—bound at the point of the Virginal Conception.

Yet, from an eternal perspective, it could be argued that the Word has always existed with flesh (cf. Revelation 13:8; 17:8). This would fully take into account Chafer’s statement, “The consciousness of God is best conceived as being an all-inclusive comprehension at once, covering all that has been or will be.” By extension, we might think that every true Christian has always been seated in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 2:6). But might that call into question free will (cf. Revelation 3:5)? I suggest we not try to sit on God’s Throne, that we not attempt to ponder from an eternal perspective. Let’s stick with the temporal.

With all the foregoing in mind, we can do proper justice to the truth of Colossians 1:16-17 (cf. Hebrews 1:2):

16 …and all things have been created through Him and for Him. 17 And He Himself exists before all, and in/by Him all things hold together.4

John the Gospel writer apparently drew from Paul’s words here. All things were created through Him (the Word without flesh). That is, the Word is the Agent of creation (John 1:3). And all things were created for Him (the Word with flesh). That is, all things were created for the God-man, Jesus Christ. The first clause of verse 17 can be translated and interpreted a few different ways. It could be translated: He is before all. Some interpretations include: (a) the Word exists before all created order; (b) Christ, in his Divine nature, exists before all created order; (c) the Word, as God, is preeminent; (d) Christ, as the God-man, is preeminent. The text may well be purposefully ambiguous such that there is intended polysemy, inviting more than one interpretation.

But what about the final clause? Prior to the Incarnation it was simple enough: the Word without flesh was holding all things together. However, can the God-man hold all things together while walking the earth, limited in physical presence? To claim Jesus did so via His Divine nature (in abstraction from His human nature) might smack of Nestorianism. How can we resolve this?

With ease. God is omnipresent. We should not imagine God being constrained within/to Jesus’ human body any more than we might think the Holy Spirit is constrained within each believer’s body. Surely, there are not as many ‘Holy Spirits’ as there are Christians! In the same way, Jesus’ Divine nature, being omnipresent, can be in hypostatic union in the Person of Christ yet still continually sustain the cosmos.

In other words, we must not construe this passage as conveying that the Divine-human Jesus was holding the cosmos together, as if Jesus’ human body was omnipresent. Now, it was His Divine nature for sure, but the Divine nature was exhibiting the attribute of omnipresence (along with omnipotence and omniscience) in performing this function. This Divine function was not interrupted by the Incarnation.

In conclusion, we do no violence to the Deity of Christ if we affirm that the Word existed without human flesh, that the Word was not “Jesus Christ” prior to the Incarnation. In fact, we would unduly Deify Jesus’ humanity should we claim Jesus existed before creation. In other words, we cannot substitute “Jesus Christ” for “the Word” in John 1:1. This would make nonsense of the Scriptures. But we can claim that Jesus Christ preexisted as the Word in John 1:1. Or that the Word (John 1:1-3) is the preexistence of Jesus Christ.

All in proper—temporal—perspective…

[Related: Probing the Prologue in The Gospel According to John: John 1:1-2 and John 1:3-5]


1 Thomas V. Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate (Ithaca, NY:  Cornell University Press, 1986), p 91.  Brackets added.
2 Though he allows free will.
3 Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, [© 1948, 1976 Dallas Theological Seminary] 1993), pp VII.141-42.  Emphasis added.
4 My translation, with assistance from Murray J. Harris, Colossians and Philemon, Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2013), pp 42-43; Constantine R. Campbell, Colossians and Philemon: A Handbook on the Greek Text, Baylor Handbook on the Greek New Testament (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2013), pp 11-14.

Christmas Came Early!

Who can forget the part in A Charlie Brown Christmas when Linus recites Luke 2:8-14 (KJV)? This captures the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. This captures the meaning of Christmas.

But, arguably, the story of Christmas comes a bit earlier than that. Before the Virgin Birth was the Virginal Conception. This is found in Luke 1:26-38 and Matthew 1:18-24.

Yet the implication of Jeremiah 1:5 shows that Christmas came even earlier:

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you came out of the womb, I sanctified you and appointed you a prophet to the nations.

If God assigned Jeremiah’s role before forming him in the womb, then he surely knew Jesus’ assignment before His miraculous birth! Can we know how early?

We know from John chapter 1 that Jesus predates His earthly existence as “the Word” (Logos).

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us… (John 1:14).

The first portion “And the Word became flesh” can be understood as either the Virginal Conception or the Virgin Birth. I think it means the former. Whichever the case, strictly speaking, “the Word” predates Jesus of Nazareth. That is, before John 1:14 “the Word” existed without human flesh. In fact, a careful reading of John 1:1-3 illustrates that “the Word” predates creation, for He was the Agent of all creation:

1 In the beginning the Word existed, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (by nature). 2 He [the Word] existed in the beginning with God. 3 Through Him [the Word] all things came to be…

While God is the Creator (see Rev 4:11, e.g.), “the Word” was the Agent by which all things were created. Thus, when “the Word became flesh” the uncreated Agent of all creation became part of all creation!

Yet we still haven’t answered the question of whether or not we can know how early Jesus’ assignment was. The book of Revelation implicitly provides the answer!

Depending on which Bible version you have (the Greek syntax here can be construed two different ways), the implication of Revelation 13:8 (cf. 17:8) is such that either: {a} names were placed in the Book of Life before the foundation of the world (NIV, ESV, NASB, HCSB) or {b} the Lamb (Jesus) was slain before the foundation of the world (KJV, Douay-Rheims, ISV, YLT). In either case, this indicates salvation was worked out before creation.

Thus, Christmas came VERY early!

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.

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

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 14:15.

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

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.

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