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Special Note: On the noun “knowledge” in John

As part of my analysis of knowledge and revelation in the Johannine writings (cf. the current article), I pointed out that, while the verb ginw/skw (ginœ¡skœ, “know”) is found quite often, the noun gnw=si$ (gnœ¡sis, “knowledge”) does not occur at all. Compare this with the relatively frequent use of the noun in Paul’s letters (esp. 1 and 2 Corinthians). Some commentators have theorized that the Christian communities which produced (and used) the Johannine Gospel and letters were combating an early form of Gnosticism (with a docetic Christology, cf. 1 Jn 4:1-6, etc). The persons or groups referred to in 1 John may be related in some way to those mentioned by Ignatius of Antioch (Smyrneans 2-5, Trallians 9-10) in the early 2nd century (c. 110 A.D.). There is a good discussion of this topic, for example, in R. E. Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple (Paulist Press: 1979), especially pp. 103-23. According to this basic theory, the author(s) of the Gospel and letters may have intentionally avoided use of the noun gnw=si$. For a possible similar phenomenon in the Pastoral letters, cf. my recent note on 1 Tim 6:20-21. However, there are several other explanations which do not require any relationship to Gnosticism or anti-gnostic tendencies:

  1. The Gospel and Letters of John have a much simpler vocabulary than, for example, the letters of Paul. Related to this is a marked tendency, in many instances, to prefer the use of verbs rather than nouns to govern the basic mode of expression. Just about anything that one might say about “knowledge” could easily be expressed through use of the verbs ginw/skw (“know”) and ei&dw (“see, know”). This dependence on the verb also tends to emphasize Jesus Christ as the means and instrument of knowledge, rather than the knowledge per se. This differs in certain respects from Paul, who frequently emphasizes the message (the Gospel) itself.
  2. The Gospel (and Letters) also seem to rely upon a relatively small set of descriptive nouns to refer to the revelation which comes in the person of Jesus; these include—light (fw=$), truth (a)lh/qeia), life (zwh/), word (lo/go$, r(h=ma), way (o(do/$), splendor/glory (do/ca), and so forth. A number of these convey in the popular mind a more immediate and dynamic sense of the divine presence and activity than would the word gnw=si$. That these can be seen as interchangeable with gnw=si$, to some extent, is indicated by the statement in Jn 1:17: “…the favor [i.e. grace] and truth (of God) came to be through Jesus Christ”. Paul, on the other hand, could say much the same thing using the word “knowledge”—”in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden away” (Col 2:3), “…the light of the knowledge of the splendor of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:6), etc.
  3. As noted above, while Paul has a strong sense of knowledge in terms of the message about Christ (i.e. the Gospel), which could effectively be summarized by the noun gnw=si$, the Gospel and Letters of John emphasize a different aspect of revelation—the person of Christ, the Son of God. This would be natural enough within the Gospel narrative, since it deals primarily with the words and actions of Jesus, along with the people’s response to them; but the same emphasis continues in 1 John as well. Indeed, the noun eu)agge/lion (“good message”, i.e. Gospel) does not occur at all in the Johannine writings (unless one includes Rev 14:6), an omission almost unthinkable for Paul in his letters. Instead, the emphasis is decidedly on having seen and heard Jesus himself (1 Jn 1:1-3)—his words, etc.—and, in particular, the great commandment to love one another. For a full list of the relevant passages, see the current article. Within early Christian thought, the Gospel message is, of course, directly related to the person of Christ; it is really a question of which aspect of the Christian faith one seeks to emphasize.

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