Wednesday, 9 February 2022

Poetic Parallelism is the key to understanding the Fourth Gospel's preamble: John 1:1-5

[1] In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. [2] The same was in the beginning with God. [3] All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. [4] In him was life; and the life was the light of men. [5] And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. 


I have written several times on this blog about the above beautiful and famous verses which form a preamble to the Fourth Gospel "John"). 

I have always been impressed by these words, but never confident about what they meant. 

Indeed, I am unsure that they were composed by the same hand as the bulk of the Gospel, and I doubt that 1-5 formed a part of the original Gospel - which probably runs from 1:6 to the end of Chapter 20. 

But I now feel that, whatever its provenance; in terms of meaning John 1:1-5 is much more of a poem - and much less of a theology - than I had previously suspected. 


I would now regard John 1:1-5 as an example of poetic parallelism - which was apparently the characteristic verse form of Hebrew poetry - but also found in English verse*. Parallelism consists in saying the same thing more than once, but in different words; it is a kind of 'decoration' of the meaning. 

So, verses 1 and 2 refer to God the Father with a 'double parallelism' - using different terms to mean The Same Thing. Thus 'in the beginning', 'the Word', 'with God' and 'God' are all intended to be the same entity. These are poetic ways of saying the same thing four times

Indeed, there seems to be an element of  the variant of parallelism called 'chiasmus' about verses 1-2 taken together: in the way the phrase in the beginning is 'reflected' at both ends of the passage, around God/ Word in the middle.   

The point of relevance here, is that when a meaning is repeated in different words - the repeat should be regarded as saying The Same Thing - and not as expanding the meaning given in the first usage.  


In other words, verses 1-2 are not a logical argument, a syllogism. 

And not a passage explaining the nature of God. 

Nor is 1-2 engaged in contrasting God (the Father) with another entity called the Word (Jesus). 

Verses 1-2 are instead  'just' a poetic 'set-up' stating that what follows is about God.


Verses 3-4 are again a double-parallelism, 'simply' telling us (in several ways) that the God of verses 1-2 was the creator of our world; in verse 4 explicitly clarifying that creation includes 'men'. 

Giving men life/light is to create men, restated as God making men live with God's own life/light. 

In other words, verses 3-4 'merely' express the truism that the God of the Jews (from verses 1-2) was a creator god. The passage is not making detailed, new or controversial substantive claims about God. 


Verse 5 continues the theme of God as the creator, by saying (something like) that God's creation is not 'comprehended' by the chaos/ darkness from which it came. 

I take this to be a 'picture' of how the author 'saw' reality - God's creation as being like a light in the void of un-meaning; and a way of asserting that all possibility of knowledge (comprehension) is within creation. 

So, this passage is not about Jesus's rejection by The World - it is not about Jesus at all.


Then the Fourth Gospel proper begins its account of Jesus's person, teachings and work with: There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  



*As parodied by AA Milne: 

O Timothy Tim 
Has ten pink toes, 
And ten pink toes 
Has Timothy Tim. 
They go with him 
Wherever he goes, 
And wherever he goes 
They go with him.

4 comments:

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I agree that it's a poem, not a statement of theology (in my old looong post about John 1, I compared it to the poetry of Isaiah), but it's hard to say it's not about Jesus. Look at vv. 14-15.

"And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. John bare witness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me."

Here, "the Word" very clearly refers to Jesus, and also must surely be referring back to "the Word" in the preamble. In general, I think vv. 6-14 refer back to themes in the preamble so much that they must have been written together, and by the same hand. Just because part of the work is written in a different style doesn't mean it's an interpolation. (Walter Kaufmann used to say that if Goethe's Faust had been analyzed by biblical scholars, they would surely have concluded that the two preludes were later additions and that the body of the play was clearly stitched together from two lost sources, the Gretchenist and the Margaretist.)

easty said...

Because Christian by long tradition are so used to referring to Jesus as "the Word" they make the word "Word" here (and elsewhere) into a magical title. Some go so absurd as to make all occurrences of the word "word" in the Bible mean Jesus. It is a problem in this verse because when the word Word is just automatically seen as a magic title then its meaning is not thought about (only the emotional connotation of the magical word which conjures a certain feeling), and thus alternative translations (reason, logic, rationality) which might offer a simpler explanation cannot be considered. So they would never consider "In the beginning was Rationality, and the Rationality was with God, and the Rationality was God" which could be interpreted as simply as "before creation God was the only rational being in existence." No, it has to refer to some eternal separation of God into 3 persons who are all co-equal as the Athanasian Creed says, simply because some pope decided that God knows when.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - Here, "the Word" very clearly refers to Jesus, and also must surely be referring back to "the Word" in the preamble.

Yes, I agree - but I don't regard it as theologically decisive; especially since Jesus is never again referred to as The Word. This raises the possibility that it was part of the later additions - but also, theologically, it may mean no more than that Jesus was fully divine.

At any rate, the meaning of "the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us" cannot be taken literally; because it would make Jesus an 'avatar' - an incarnated version of the one-God. Which is contradicted by the rest of the Gospel *many* times.

"Just because part of the work is written in a different style doesn't mean it's an interpolation."

Of course not; but we do need to make overall judgments of the nature of specific passages and verses; unless we are to fall into an insane verse by verse (or word by word) attempt to build overall meanings in a bottom-up fashion...

Which I regard as something alien to (truthful) language even now (such usage is characteristic of un-truthful legalism and bureaucracy), but especially 2000 years ago.

I therefore think it is correct to regard these passages as poetic statements of truisms - of things the author and his circles regarded as uncontroversial baseline assumptions - rather than statements of novel, 'Christian' or theological substance.

Bruce Charlton said...

@east - Yes, this usage of Word as Loos is of special interest to Christians of a Platonic or Gnostic mindset - because they regard Jesus in a very abstract and depersonalized fashion; indeed as de facto an avatar - and plenty of mainstream orthodox theologians seem very much drawn towards this as well.

I guess there are many reasons for this, from the earliest years after Jesus's ascension - but the Fourth Gospel overall paints an extremely different picture of the nature of Jesus.

Strangely enough, most of those who (claim) a special devotion to the Fourth Gospel ('Johannites') are of exactly this Platonic/ Gnostic/ Mystic type - and often all-but ignore resurrection and believe that Man's ultimate destiny is to discard the body and return to being pure spirit. In other words, they are actually reading the Fourth Gospel through a lens provided by other and more primary assumptions - because if one genuinely looks at what the Fourth Gospel says, as primary (and blots out being as later-and-lesser revelations the other Gospel, Epistles, Revelation/ The Apocalypse, apocryphal writings, church fathers etc) - one can see that almost the opposite view is being proposed by the Fourth Gospel of-itself.