Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

How Semitic Was John? Rethinking the Hellenistic Background to John 1:1

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

How Semitic Was John? Rethinking the Hellenistic Background to John 1:1

Article excerpt

You brought to my notice some books written by the Platonists, which had been translated from Greek into Latin. In these books I found it stated . . . "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . ." But I did not find . . . that "the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us"

(Augustine, Confessions VII, 9).

The gospel of John has often been viewed as the paragon of Hellenistic thought in the New Testament canon.1 For years scholars believed that the Hellenistic influence on John was conspicuously present in the "light" and "dark" contrasts often offered by the text of the gospel.2 Also, curiosity swarmed about John's use of ho logos-or the Divine Word. Surely this was some abstract term autochthonous to the world of Stoicism and Greek philosophical thought. But is this really the case?

Given the complexity of these issues as well as the lack of continuity concerning the Logos doctrine in New Testament scholarship, this paper will attempt to add to the ongoing discussion by looking at what a possible Jewish/Semitic reading of John 1:1 might look like. We will attempt this by tracking the concept of ho logos throughout a number of Jewish texts prior to, contemporaneous with, and written after the gospel of John. Obviously, given the fact that there are limitations to any article, we will not examine every possible reference to the logos in Judaism. Therefore, we will only provide a sample reading of the documents deemed most relevant and closest to the theology of John. Finally, this essay will conclude by looking for a different trajectory for the background of the logos than Greek philosophical thought; it will then attempt to add to the already voluminous readings of the prologue of John.3 We will begin our discussion by turning to the Greek text of John 1:1.

An Exegetical Discussion of John 1:1

The text of John 1:1 itself has a sordid past and a myriad of possible interpretations. With the Greek alone, we can create emphatic, orthodox, creed-like statements, or we can commit pure and unadulterated heresy. The Nestle-Aland twenty-seventh edition of John 1:1 reads: En arche en ho logos, kai ho logos en pros ton theon, kai theos en ho logos. A simple English translation reads: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.4 From the point of view of early church history, heresy develops when a misunderstanding arises concerning Greek articles, the predicate nominative, and grammatical word order. To illustrate, the early church heresy of Sabellianism understood John 1:1c to read, "and the Word was the God"; while the early church heresy of Arianism understood John 1:1c to read, "and the word was a God."5 As we can easily see, these subtle nuances reveal a radical shift from the standard orthodox thinking of John 1:1c: "and the Word was God." Yet from a historical perspective, what should we make of this ho logos?

From the textual evidence of the Septuagint (LXX) it seems reasonable to suggest that John's en arche (in the beginning) may be an allusion to Genesis 1:1, which in the LXX also reads: en arche.6 But, it is also quite possible that the translators of the LXX are providing us with an interpretation of the Hebrew text of Genesis 1:1.7 The issue is far from solved, however, when we consider the tension created by b'reshith, the Hebrew equivalent of en arche. As readers of the Bible, we may desire never to see tensions in the biblical text, but reality is a far different situation. We will return to our discussion of John 1:1 shortly, but first we must examine the intricacies of the word b'reshith.

A Closer Look at B'reshith

B'reshith has its share of problems. Advanced students of Hebrew have likely encountered "other" translations for this word than the run-of-the-mill "in the beginning." Even among leading English translations of the Bible, there tends to be ample disagreement.8 In fact, an old joke has arisen in some circles: "Where is the first place that scholars disagree over the translation of a passage in the Bible? …

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