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Note of the Day – May 14 (John 1:4)

By | Exegetical/Study Series, Note of the Day | No Comments

As discussed in the introduction, this series of daily notes deals with the key thematic motifs of Spirit (pneu=ma) and Life (zwh=), as joined together in the statement by Jesus in Jn 6:63: “the utterances [i.e. words] that I speak to you are Spirit and Life”.

These notes will begin with the Johannine writings, as both terms have special significance in these works. The noun zwh= occurs 36 times in the Gospels (compared with 16 in the Synoptics combined). There are 13 further occurrences in the First Letter; if we include references (16) in the book of Revelation (considered as a Johannine work), there are 65 total, nearly half of all occurrences (135) in the New Testament. The primary verb za/w (“live”), from which zwh= is derived, is also frequent in the Gospel of John (17 out of 140 in the NT), especially used as verbal adjective or substantive. The verb zwopoie/w (“make [a]live”) also occurs twice in the Gospel.

The noun pneu=ma (“breath, spirit”) is more common in the New Testament, often in reference to the Spirit of God (or Holy Spirit). It occurs 24 times in the Gospel of John, and in all but 2 (or 3) instances, the reference is to the Spirit of God; the specific expression “Holy Spirit” appears three times (1:33; 14:26; 20:22). Thus the Spirit is more prominent in John than the other Gospels (though Luke is relatively close), and evinces a marked development of the early Gospel Tradition. The Johannine Discourses of Jesus are extremely complex literary pieces, reflecting a level of theological and Christological expression (and interpretation), though they certainly derive from authentic sayings and teachings of Jesus. For a survey of the evidence from the Synoptic Gospels, cf. the Introduction.

I begin with the first relevant passage in the Gospel of John, from the initial section of the Prologue (1:1-18).

John 1:4

An analysis of this verse is complicated because there is a variant reading involved. It is not a textual variant per se—rather, it is reflected more in the way that verses 3 and 4 are punctuated. In order to see this in context, I begin with verse 1 (note that for the sake of simplicity, I translate lo/go$ conventionally as “Word”):

“In the beginning was [h@n] the Word, and the Word was [h@n] toward God, and the Word was [h@n] God. This (One) was [h@n] in the beginning toward God.” (vv. 1-2)

The first two verses are governed by a four-fold use of the verb of being (ei)mi), in the imperfect active (indicative) form h@n (“he was…”). There are three components in verse 1, each characterized by an h@n phrase:

  • in the beginning was the Word
  • the Word was toward [pro/$] God [qeo/$ w/definite article]
  • the Word was God [qeo/$ w/out definite article]

Verse 2 restates the first two phrases: “This (One) was in the beginning | toward [pro/$] God”. The preposition pro/$ likely reflects the idea of facing God (or even moving toward him), suggesting that the Word is in close proximity (and intimacy) with God. What is most important is to realize how the verb of being (h@n, “was…”) characterizes the divine, eternal Being and Existence. In standard theological parlance, we might say that this relates to the inner life of the Godhead.

This brings us to verses 3 and 4, which can be understood (and translated) several ways. The crux lies in the last two words of verse 3 (o^ ge/gonen), indicated by italics below:

  • Translation (punctuation) #1:
    “All (thing)s came to be through him, and apart from him not even one (thing) came to be (of) that which has come to be. In him was life…”
  • Translation (punctuation) #2:
    “All (thing)s came to be through him, and apart from him not even one (thing) came to be. That which has come to be in him was life…”

Many commentators prefer the latter punctuation, citing a number of key early Church Fathers in support of it (cf. R. E. Brown, Gospel According to John, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 29, pp. 6-7). Those who favor it also note the supposed “staircase” parallelism of the poetic lines, whereby the start of one line picks up where the previous line leaves off—i.e. “…came to be” // “that which has come to be…” However, in my view, this is incorrect. The strongest argument against punctuation #2 (above) is the specific use (and meaning) of the verb gi/nomai in the context of the Johannine Prologue (and elsewhere in the Gospel). The verb of being (ei)mi) governs verses 1-2, while gi/nomai, a verb of becoming (“come to be, become”) governs v. 3. The verb gi/nomai in the Prologue refers to creation—i.e., that which comes to be (in contrast to God, who Is), especially creatures (human beings) who come to be born. Punctuation #1 above preserves this distinction accurately:

“All (thing)s came to be [e)ge/neto] through him, and apart from him not even one (thing) came to be [e)ge/neto] (of) that which has come to be [ge/gonen].”

The three-fold use of gi/nomai parallels the three-fold use of ei)mi (h@n) in verse 1. In conventional theological parlance, verse 1 deals with the life/existence of the Godhead, while verse 3 deals with creation (and the central role of Word in the process of creation). According to this interpretation, verse 4 has a clear and simple symmetry:

“In him was [h@n] life, and the life was [h@n] the light of men”

The dual use of the verb of being (ei)mi [h@n]) marks a return to a focus on the divine Being/Existence emphasized in vv. 1-2:

  • “in him [i.e the Divine Word] was Life”
  • “th(is Divine) Life was the Light…”

Here there is definitely a kind of step-parallelism:

  • In him was Life
    • Life was the Light of men

This first occurrence of the noun zwh= in the Gospel of John is significant in the way that it defines the term, not in the traditional sense of the blessed life to be inherited by the righteous at the end-time, but as the life which God possesses (in Himself). This reflects a more profound sense of what might be referred to as “eternal life”—not as everlasting life, but as divine life, the life which is in God. The two halves of verse 4 are virtually a summary of the Johannine Gospel message:

  • The Word (i.e. Jesus, the Son) shares the Life of God and holds it in himself (cf. 5:26, etc)
  • This Life is communicated to human beings in the world (i.e. believers) through/by the Son (Jesus, who is also the [living] Word)

The sense of verse 4, in my opinion, becomes quite confused if one adopts the second punctuation (#2) cited above: “That which has come to be in him was life…”. First it mixes together the verbs gi/nomai and h@n in a way that is most difficult to interpret. What exactly does this statement mean? The difficulty is reflected by the fact that there are two distinct ways of interpreting this reading:

  • That which has come to be in him was life…” or
  • “That which as come to be was life in him

The first phrasing suggest that Life (zwh=) was the thing which “came to be” in the Word. The second phrasing allows for the idea that something which “came to be” in the Word was given life, or was identified with Life. In either instance, there is a strange mixing of Creation with the Divine Life which is not at all clear. Admittedly, within the thought and theology of the Gospel, believers come to be “in” Christ, united with him (and God the Father), but this idea does not seem to be in view at this point in the Prologue. Rather, it is introduced in vv. 12-13, only after it is stated that the Word was [h@n] “in the world” (e)n tw=| ko/smw|) [v. 10]. This a foreshadowing of the incarnation, of the Word coming to be born as a human being (vv. 14ff).

What does it mean to say that the Life (h( zwh=) was “the Light of men”? As in the case of the noun zwh=, the word “light” (fw=$) has a special significance in the Gospel of John. It does not typically refer to ordinary light (except in a symbolic sense), nor of human reason, etc as “light, enlightenment”; rather, it relates specifically to the knowledge and awareness of God the Father (and his Truth, etc) which is revealed and manifest in the person and work of Jesus. The Life which Jesus (the Son and Word) possesses is communicated to human beings (believers), bringing Light to them. While this is almost certainly the sense of verse 4, many commentators recognize that the Johannine Prologue likely draws upon ancient Wisdom traditions. In this regard, the “light of men” could be understood in a more general sense—i.e. God and the Divine Word as the source of enlightening wisdom. However, such Wisdom traditions are sublimated in the Prologue as we have it, having been reinterpreted from a Christological viewpoint. We will see further examples of this as we continue through the remaining passages in the Gospel dealing with the motifs of “Life” and “Spirit”.