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Note of the Day – January 14

This is the second of three notes on John 1:29-34, in celebration of the Baptism of Jesus—the first discussed the revelatory statement of the Baptist in verse 29 (“See, the Lamb of God…”); today’s note will explore verses 30-31.

John 1:30-31

These verses build upon the statement in v. 29: “See, the Lamb of God, the (one) taking up the sins of the world”. V. 30 begins “This is (the one) over whom I said…”—then follows the difficult saying:

o)pi/sw mou e&rxetai a)nh\r o^$ e&mprosqe/n mou ge/gonen o%ti prw=to/$ mou h@n
“(in) back of me comes a man who has come to be in front of me (in) that [i.e. because] he was first/foremost (over) me”

This is nearly identical to verse 15, which begins “Yoµanan {John} witnessed about him and cried out, relating/saying, ‘This was (the one of) whom I said…”

o( o)pi/sw mou e)rxo/meno$ e&mprosqe/n mou ge/gonen o%ti prw=to/$ mou h@n
“the (one) coming (in) back of me has come to be in front of me (in) that [i.e. because] he was first/foremost (over) me”

There are three phrases in this saying (in v. 30), each of which is governed by a specific verb (and form) which is most significant to observe (the distinctions being generally obscured in translation):

  • “a man comes [e&rxetai]  in back of [o)pi/sw] me”
  • “who has come to be [ge/gonen] in front of [e&mprosqe/n] me”
  • “(he) was [h@n] first/foremost [prw=to/$] (over) me”

These three verbs are used with great care in the Gospel, when applied to Jesus, and especially in the ‘Prologue’ (Jn 1:1-18). Let us consider them in turn (references to verses in the Prologue exclude v. 15 which is largely identical to v. 30):

e&rxomai is a basic verb in narration and description which fundamentally means “come, go”. It is used frequently in the Gospel of John, often with a deeper theological or spiritual nuance than ordinary coming/going—in particular Jesus speaks of coming from the Father and going (back) to the Father; believers also come to Jesus (and to the Father). In the Prologue, the verb occurs three times (outside of v. 15):

a) John came [h@lqen] as a witness to the (true) Light (v. 7)
b) The reference is to someone coming [e)rxo/menon] into the world (v. 9). It is not entirely clear whether this relates to “every man” or “the true Light”; the latter is to be preferred, making it a reference to the Word (Christ) coming into the world
c) The Word (Christ) came [h@lqen] to his own… (v. 11)

These references all relate to the appearance/presence of a human being in the world (i.e. among people). The present indicative form [e&rxetai] in verse 30 is closest to the present participle in v. 9 (and 15). In terms of Christ (the incarnate Word), we might speak here of the “historical Jesus”—that is, the man who was born, lived, and ministered in the world, among his own (the people of Israel).

gi/nomai has the primary meaning “come to be, become”, again common in narration and description, and, like e&rxomai, is often used with special significance in the Gospel of John. It can carry the nuance of “come to be born”, and, as such, is very close to the related verb genna/w. This latter verb is used in John for the spiritual “birth” of believers (Jn 1:13; 3:3-8) and gi/nomai also is used frequently to describe coming to faith (i.e. “becoming” believers, Jn 12:36; 13:19; 14:29; 15:8, etc). Gi/nomai occurs 8 times in the Prologue (outside of v. 15):

a) For the things which came-to-be [e)ge/neto/ge/gonen] through the Word (v. 3 [x 3], 10)
b) A man (John) came-to-be (born) [e)ge/neto] (v. 6)
c) The Word came-to-be [e)ge/neto] flesh… (v. 14)
d) “Grace and truth” came-to-be [e)ge/neto] through Christ (v. 17)—contrast with “the Law was given” through Moses.
e) Those who received (Christ) are given authority to become [gene/sqai] sons of God (v. 12)

The perfect form [ge/gonen] in verse 30 (and 15) creates a difficulty in interpretation (discussed below), however it would seem to relate to the aorist form [e)ge/neto] in v. 14 (“the Word became flesh”).

ei)mi is the primary (existential) verb of being. In the prologue it occurs 10 times (outside of v. 15):

a) Three times in v. 1: the Logos was [h@n] (on this, see below); and in v. 2.
b) Twice in v. 4: In him (the Word) was [h@n] life, and the life was [h@n] the light…; and in v. 9 “the true light was [h@n]…”
c) John was [h@n] not the (true) light (v. 8)
d) The Word (Christ) was [h@n] in the world (v. 10)

The three occurrences of h@n in verse 1 form a definite contrast to the three forms of gi/nomai in verse 3:

  • In the beginning the Logos was
  • The Logos was toward [pro/$] God
  • God was the Logos
    (given in the literal word order, i.e. the Logos was God)
  • All things came to be [e)ge/neto] through him
  • Apart from him came to be [e)ge/neto] not even one (thing)
  • {one (thing)} which has come to be [ge/gonen]

In other words, the things in creation come to be (gi/nomai), but God is (ei)mi). For a similar contrast, see John 8:58: pri\n  )Abraa\m gene/sqai e)gw\ ei)mi/ (“before Abraham came to be, I am“). So the use of ei)mi in verse 30 in context clearly refers to the Divine existence of Jesus. Let us explore a little further how these three verbs—e&rxomai, gi/nomai and ei)mi—may relate here by glossing the terms in each phrase:

1. o)pi/sw mou e&rxetai a)nh\r (“[in] back of me comes a man”):

opi/sw mou (“[in] back of me”)—this can mean: (a) Jesus is younger, and has appeared publicly later than, John; or (b) Jesus is/was a follower of John; or even (c) Jesus was unknown or less well known than John. Many critical scholars accept (b) as an authentic historical detail, which can be debated. In terms of Gospel tradition as it has come down to us, and the overall presentation in the Gospel of John here, probably little more than (a), or some combination of (a) and (c), is intended.

e&rxetai (“comes”)—that is, the immediate (historical) presence/appearance of the man Jesus, publicly, in the midst of the people (see above on e&rxomai in 1:7, 9, 11).

a)nh\r (“a man”)—i.e., the “historical Jesus”, a real human being, a man like all the other people around John.

2. o^$ e&mprosqe/n mou ge/gonen (“who has come to be in front of me”):

o^$ (“who/which”)—relative particle qualifying a)nh\r and serving to join the first and second phrases.

e&mprosqe/n mou (“in front of me”)—this is clearly a contrast with o)pi/sw mou (“[in] back of me”), but in what sense? Much depends on the interpretation of ge/gonen, but I see this a typical bit of Johannine wordplay, whereby the immediate (apparent) sense is overshadowed (and may even be contrary) to the deeper (true) meaning. One might think that the Baptist (or the Gospel writer) here is simply saying that Jesus, who was younger than John and relatively unknown, is now coming into greater prominence. The immediate context would certainly suggest this—those who were following John now follow Christ (vv. 35ff, cf. also 3:27-30).

ge/gonen (“has come to be”)—the usage of gi/nomai in the Prologue (see above), and especially in verse 14 (“the Word became [e)ge/neto] flesh”), strongly suggests that the Incarnation be understood here. In other words, Jesus has come to be “in front of” John because he is the eternal Word (Lo/go$) that became flesh. The perfect form here (ge/gonen, parallel to the occurrence in v. 3) may be meant to indicate that something which took place in the (eternal) past, is presently true.

3. o%ti prw=to/$ mou h@n (“[in] that he was first/foremost [over] me”):

o%ti (“[in] that [i.e. because]”)—the reason why Jesus is “in front of” John.

prw=to/$ mou (“first/foremost [over] me”)—the superlative adjective prw=to$ is the climax of a step-parallelism (a favorite Johannine technique) with the earlier prepositions o)pi/sw (“[in] back of”) and e&mprosqen (“in front of”). Not only is Jesus “in front of” John, but he is “first (of all)” or “foremost” over him; indeed, this is the reason for his being “in front”. It is a dense and powerful symbolic chain of argument.

h@n (“was”)—this is the same form of ei)mi used throughout the Prologue (esp. vv. 1-2), and serves to identify Jesus, in no uncertain terms, with the Divine (and pre-existent) Word (Lo/go$) of God.

Many critical scholars have expressed doubts that this remarkable saying could have come from the historical John; it seems rather more like a theological-christological declaration by the Gospel writer. The point certainly can be debated; however, even if it does not preserve the ipsissima verba of the Baptist, the words very likely stem from a genuine saying. Other traditions, more objectively verifiable, are recorded, in all four Gospels, whereby John confesses the (far) greater status of Jesus (Mark 1:7-8 par.; Matt 3:14-15; John 3:27-30). In the concluding note, I will look at the idea that the Fourth Gospel has a special christological purpose in subordinating John to Jesus. In context here, verse 31 clearly is supplemental to v. 30, building on the earlier statement in more practical (historical) terms:

“And I did not see [i.e. know/perceive] him, but that he might be made to shine forth [i.e. appear], through this [i.e. for this reason] I came dipping/dunking {baptizing} in water”

There is both a text-critical and interpretative question involving the perfect form ge/gonen in Jn 1:4. Verses 3-4 can be read two ways:
(1) “all things came to be through him, and apart from him came to be not even one (thing) which has come to be [ge/gonen]. In him was life…”
(2) “all things came to be through him, and apart from him came to be not even one (thing). That which has come to be [ge/gonen] in him was life…”
In addition, (2) can be also rendered two ways: (a) “that which has come to be, in him was life…” or (b) “that which has come to be in him was life…”. Commentators and textual critics remain divided on which of these is the correct intepretation. See an earlier article of mine for more detail, including arguments supporting the different readings.

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