Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

The Johannine Prologue and Jewish Didactic Hymn Traditions: A New Case for Reading the Prologue as a Hymn

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

The Johannine Prologue and Jewish Didactic Hymn Traditions: A New Case for Reading the Prologue as a Hymn

Article excerpt

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The problem of identifying and classifying early Christian hymns within the NT has not gone away, and no identifiable consensus has emerged with regard to the nature, structure, and purpose of any single purported NT hymn. The Johannine prologue is a case in point. Though many scholars recognize the prologue as something of an early Christian hymn, others suggest that the whole enterprise of identifying early Christian hymns is ill-advised. The sharp differences of opinion on the issue of early Christian hymns indicate that this continues to be an important issue; it is particularly important in that it affects the way scholars interpret the rich and complex thought of John 1:1-18. In this essay I wish to carve out some conceptual space for a position between those who identify hymns in the NT and those who dismiss that impulse as methodologically unsound. I will argue that we have in John's prologue an instance of a particular kind of hymnody-didactic hymnody-an instructional strategy with roots in the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Jewish writings, but that also resonates with instructional approaches of the Greco-Roman world.

To make this case I first define the concept of didactic hymnody as it existed in the centuries before the Gospel of John. Second, I analyze the prologue as a didactic hymn showing that this perspective provides a satisfying reading of the prologue on a number of levels as it takes account of primary features of the prologue. Since this reading leads to the conclusion that the John the Baptist materials are interpolations, I devote a section to addressing this problem. Next, I review objections to the claim that the Johannine prologue is a hymn, responding in detail to arguments made by Daniel Boyarin.1 Finally, I contrast Boyarin's approach with my own and show that, while Boyarin identifies some serious problems with the traditional hymn view, he also sets aside some important clues to the true nature of the prologue as a didactic hymn.


Scholars have long recognized the existence in ancient times of didactic hymnody-a kind of composition that instructs an audience even as it praises the divine.2 Although the term has been used for decades, the concept of didactic hymnody has never been adequately defined. In this essay I use the term didactic hymnody as a shorthand phrase for a larger set of texts that includes psalms, hymns, prayers, and religious poetry whose primary purpose is to convey a lesson, idea, or theological truth to a human audience. Thus, a number of different kinds of poetic or religious compositions can be considered didactic hymns when their contents register a didactic tone and their style participates in hymnic conventions.

Didactic hymns often use traditional language and expressions to paint a portrait of ultimate reality that a human audience is expected to embrace. By adapting time-honored conventions to address the needs of the present community, didactic hymns invite the audience to see its current circumstances in the context of a larger picture of reality that takes account of the divine realm as well as the human world. In fact, this appears to be the value of the didactic hymn: it teaches not merely through direct instruction but also through imagery and metaphor, creating a vision of ultimate reality. This vision may or may not align with visible realities that the community is experiencing, and thus a didactic hymn has the potential to serve as a powerful vehicle for articulating an alternative view of the world and how God is at work in it through people. In this regard didactic hymns and prayers are well-suited to play a role in communal formation.3

In ancient Jewish writings instructional hymnody is most clearly seen in psalms that state their intent to teach in explicit terms (e.g., Pss 34:11; 78:1). Many other psalms lack this explicit reference to their teaching function though it is clear that they also intend to convey a lesson to the audience. …

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