Friday 11 June 2021

I know when I don't know... Fourth Gospel Chapter 1 verses 1-5

Chapter 1: [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.

Some of the most famous words in the Bible; and the opening to the Gospel that I regard as the most authoritative for Christians - our primary and only eye-witness source of information on the person and teachings of Jesus. 


Yet I don't have a clear idea of what these early verses mean - what they add-up-to in a substantive sense. Indeed, I am not even sure that they have a substantive meaning; they may be essentially a poetic prologue - the author's impression rather than Jesus's teaching.

I have read plenty of interpretations, and considered plenty of possibilities; but the one thing of which I am sure is that I Do Not Know what 1: 1-5 mean. 

As I have mentioned before; it is this knowing when I do Not know that I regard as my primary virtue as a scholar and researcher. All the significant discoveries I made as a scientist were made because I recognized that I did not know what everybody else thought they did know - but in reality didn't. 


For instance, people thought they knew what was meant by saying a person suffered from 'depression', they thought they knew what they meant by 'antidepressant', they thought that the pharmaceutical action of antidepressants were delayed by several weeks - but in all instances this was just inattentive, sloppy thinking. 

Nobody really knew; and somebody needed to re-think. It may or may not be possible to reach an answer - but at least I could know that I did not know 

Later on I asked about the origins of life ("how did life arise?"), the nature of 'life' ("what is life?"), and the origin of distinct biological categories such as kingdom, phylum, class, order and family; the division between males and females; or the true disciplinary boundaries of Biology? 

I realized that people had not answered these questions, but had merely stopped asking them seriously. Biological researchers has simply 'changed the subject'. 


That's pretty much how I feel about the opening of the Fourth Gospel. I know I don't really understand it; and I don't think anybody whose interpretations I have come-across understands it either (not least because they nearly all proceed from assumptions I regard as false). 

So I am not asking or expecting anybody-else to tell me what these Bible versus mean; because I will almost certainly find such explanations flawed. This is something I would need to work out for myself and to my own satisfaction, but I would not be surprised if (for whatever reason) there was no satisfactory explanation of these words. 

There might be many reasons for this incomprehension - including interference from later insertions or deletions, that their original meaning is no longer relevant, problems with translation (and/or modern deficiencies in understanding of the original text), or that intended meaning was a mistake by the author. Or my own false assumptions. Or simple mental inadequacy. 


So, at present I rest content in not knowing, and knowing that I do not know, the meaning of this passage (and other passages) in the Bible. But if I need to know; and enquire in the right spirit; no doubt I will be able eventually to know. 

4 comments:

Mr. Andrew said...

No doubt though, you will receive comments telling you the same explanations you have already read! "Dr. Charlton, this is easy, even a simple mind can understand, our Church teaches..."

Gary Bleasdale said...

Are you content to leave it at that ("I don't know and have therefore no opinion on its meaning at all"), or do you have an interpretation which you prefer, even if you recognize that you don't have very solid grounds for holding it or defending it?

Chip said...

I have resigned myself to not knowing the answer to many such questions. I have at times thought I saw some parallels from the Book of Wisdom ("deuterocanonical"). Maybe Wisdom as a feminine counterpart or "helpmeet" to the masculine Word?

Bruce Charlton said...

@GB - I don't feel a strong need to understand this particular passage. The core messages of the Gospel are repeated several times and in different ways, therefore are very clear. The parts of the Gospel that appear just once, are probably less important at best - and may be inauthentic (i.e. with additions or deletions) at worst.