Today I am starting a study of John’s Gospel, offering my own translation and commentary. As usual I want to remind any readers that I am not a scholar but a rather a reader of the Bible, although I make every effort to be an informed reader. Modern scholars associate the Gospel and the Letters of John with a particular community of Jesus Assemblies, possibly in what is now Turkey. The book of The Revelation may also be related to this community, which preserved an understanding of Jesus from the point of view of the “Beloved Disciple” who is not otherwise identified. The Gospel was probably written in the decade 90-100 CE.
In the beginning was the Creative Wisdom;
and the Creative Wisdom was with God
and the Creative Wisdom was divine.
She was with God in the beginning:
All things were made through her
and without her nothing came to be.
What came to be in her was life
and the life was the light of humanity;
and the light shines in the darkness
and the darkness has never grasped it.
Many readers familiar with the Gospel will find this translation a disappointment: what has happened to the familiar “Word” that was with God in the beginning, and where has the feminine pronoun come from?
It’s generally agreed that there ar at least three sources for John’s use of the Greek term logos usually translated as Word:
- Greek philosophy in which it is the principle of universal reason which makes the universe a kosmos, an ordered whole.
- The Jewish scriptures, especially the book of Genesis in which God’s word is creative and the book of Proverbs, 1: 20 -33; 8:1 -9:12, where Wisdom is made a woman who shares the task of creation with God and communicates wisdom to humanity.
- The Jewish theologian Philo, contemporary of Jesus, who developed a theology of the logos as the agent of God in the material world and as the means of divine revelation to humanity.
John’s choice of this word indicates that he knew, possibly not at first hand, of Philo’s theology and valued its link with Greek rationality. But he gives the word a new content by identifying it with the Lady Wisdom of Proverbs and the creative word of Genesis. Later as we shall see he says that it was made flesh in Jesus Messiah.
My guess is that Lady Wisdom was uppermost in his mind, hence my use of the feminine pronoun and my choice of “Creative Wisdom” as a translation. It’s more paraphrase than translation, but I would argue that John’s audience were more likely to have thought of logos as a technical term, than anything like the English “word”.
“In the beginning” references the first words of Genesis, “B’reshith” in Hebrew, and identifies the Creative Wisdom with God’s act of creation, which takes place in a time aslant worldly time. This is not the remote past, but God’s time in which he continues to create.
Creative Wisdom is the unique companion of God. Is she merely a personification of God’s wisdom? I think she may have started out as that, but gradually she became a realisation that God is not simply one, but that the life of God is always a shared life. Greek philosophy had imagined that the movement of God towards the universe involved emanations of divine being which became less and less divine as they became more and more involved with matter. John’s robust Jewish faith rejected this idea altogether: Creative Wisdom is God’s partner in the creation of matter and life. There is nothing in the universe, no matter how material, that is not the result of this partnership. As the physical basis of all life, and even of what we call mind, soul and spirit, has been established by science, the connection of God to matter and energy has become important for rational theology.
John insists that the heart of creation is life. We might want to make a distinction within all that exists between matter/ energy and sentient life; John says it’s all life. God is alive and communicates life.The nature of this life is not described at this prologue to the Gospel story, except that we are told that the life was the light of humanity.Again the precise nature of the light is not described, leaving us to assume that it is a guide to human beings as to how they can share in God’s creative order, in which he separated light from darkness.
John sees the world in a dualistic way, truth v deception, light v darkness, life v death. Unlike the Old Testament, he can see no good in deception, darkness or death. He says that the darkness, meaning the realm of all that is opposed to God, cannot “grasp” the light. Does he mean it can’t take possession of it, or that it can’t understand it? Both, I think: darkness is for him both spiritually and intellectually impotent.
As we read, John schools us in the way he sees the world. Quite rapidly we start to feel at ease in the world he sets out for his readers, and are ready for him to tell us more about it.