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.  

Note added 4th December 2023: With reference to the verse 1:14: 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. I regard this as a likely interpolation, a sentence added later by another hand; since this verse (but not verses 1-5) explicitly refers to Jesus as "the Word"; which never happens anywhere else in the IV Gospel. Indeed it is only the explicit statement of verse 14 that leads to the common interpretation of "the Word" in verses 1-5 as referring to Jesus. I regard it as absolutely characteristic of the method of the IV Gospel that all important teachings and terms are repeated (in alternative ways), usually more than once. I find it inconceivable that Jesus would be called the Word (Greek logos, with its multiple implications) just once at the beginning, and never again.   

*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.


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.

Ryder said...

Bruce, thanks for linking to this from an earlier post. What you said in the comments here rings especially true: “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.”

Even in the traditional account, explicit theology always arises in response to conflict over the meaning of such passages, things the original author’s community simply accepted as true at face value. There is a sense in which the theological articulations are always trying to cope with things like this passage—things that are clearly true and yet cannot always be facilely reconciled with a handful of other things we know to be true—perhaps because they challenge the currently prevailing paradigm, as Kuhn might put it. That doesn’t mean they can’t be reconciled, only that moving from a pre-systematic to a systematic and integrated understanding of that truth (however one does it) always requires the application of evaluative reason, the “qualification” of the basic facts in light of our deepest convictions about what is most significant, most fundamentally real and true, most central, etc. Nicholas Rescher writes about this in “The Strife of Systems.”

This passage in John is, I believe, an attempt to cast important metaphysical claims from the Sinai revelation and Adamic-Semitic (I.e. Seth… Noah, Shem… Terah, Abraham, and then Israelite) oral tradition into the forms of Greco-Roman culture, in order that (as John 20:31) puts it, the reader might believe in Jesus the Son of God. It’s a way of telling philosophically oriented Hellenists from outside of that family line the crucial metaphysics one must, if not understand (since our personal sin is like the darkness that does not comprehend such lofty truth, goodness, and beauty), then at least not rebel against in order to find eternal life and salvation.

While I read and integrate passages like this differently, I am deeply thankful for your reflections on this blog and the romantic Christianity they represent. I was strengthened during the last several years by knowing there was someone out there who also thought that the B was a litmus test (and thank you and William as well for that powerful language and interpretation respectively of what was going on—that the problem lay in the fact that the solution of the forced P meant the embrace of an evil far surpassing any perceived threat, etc.). Your writings have been instructive and always timely, which is perhaps the power of a blog when you don’t have someone as a neighbour. If I one day create an index to your site to aid fellow pilgrims I hope you wouldn’t mind.