I've decided, with the new liturgical year, to do a Bible study here on the blog. My favorite book in the Bible is the Gospel of John, and I know it best, so I will be doing that one. I'll be taking it very slowly -- a few verses at a time -- and interspersing it with my ordinary material. Although the King James is my sentimental favorite, I will be posting the text from the ESV, which is in my opinion one of the best translations linguistically (about my only disappointment with it is that it doesn't have a Catholic Edition, or, as I like to call it, the director's cut); however, I'll also draw on the Greek a good deal, since there are a lot of subtleties both linguistic and historical that a glance at the English can't convey. Apart from that, I will also be consulting The Gospel and Epistles of John by Raymond Brown, who was among the foremost Johannine scholars of the last century. I recommend the book -- it is academically aimed, but still fairly accessible.
I won't go in great detail into the questions that most manuscript critics would ask first -- who wrote it, when, why, how many times the manuscript was futzed with, and whether the author was secretly an Egyptian Gnostic lesbian fertility goddess (as one is). I don't see a whole lot of reason to doubt most of the traditional answers to these questions, but even if there is, that sort of thing is more germane to a scholarly study proper than to a devotional study, even one that relies upon scholarship.
So. Let's jump in.
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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
To modern ears, this passage is perhaps familiar and probably bizarre. It relies on a few ideas, both Hebrew and Greek, that we really don't use much today, and certainly not under these names.
Let's start with the word Word. The Greek word Logos, which this translates, is kind of hard to convey in English. It does mean "word"; it also means "order, reason, account, argument" (hence logic and -ology). These ideas had all been wrapped up together in Greek philosophy for centuries. The idea of a cosmic Logos that held the universe together had been set forth by thinkers who predated Socrates and Plato; the Stoics, who were one of the most active philosophical schools at the time the Gospel was written (and who are mentioned in passing in St. Paul's address on Mars Hill), viewed the Logos as the animating, directive spirit of the universe, "who orders all things far and nigh," if you will.
This pagan idea had an analogue in Jewish thought during the Second Temple period. The concept of God's wisdom, personified as early as the book of Proverbs and continuing in books like Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon, began to be turned almost into a distinct being, who was an agent of God in the creation and sustaining of the world. Sirach opens with a paean to wisdom personified, taken up again and again throughout its pages:
All wisdom comes from the Lord
and is with him forever.
The sand of the sea, the drops of rain,
and the days of eternity -- who can count them?
The height of heaven, the breadth of the earth,
the abyss, and wisdom -- who can search them out?
Wisdom was created before all things,
and prudent understanding from eternity.
The root of wisdom -- to whom has it been revealed?
Her clever devices -- who knows them?
There is One who is wise, greatly to be feared,
sitting upon his throne.
The Lord himself created wisdom;
he saw her and apportioned her,
he poured her out upon all his works.
She dwells with all flesh according to his gift,
and he supplied her to those who love him.
-- Sirach 1.1-10 (RSV, because ESV doesn't have it)
This twofold motif, of Logos and Wisdom, is used over and over in John; as is the importance of Jesus' logos, his word, both as truth and as testimony. (More on that later.) What were personified abstractions emerge as being really personalized and incarnated in him. The deliberate reference to "In the beginning" brings the start of the Gospel together with the creation of the world itself, in which Wisdom was supposed to be the agent of God's creative activity (from a Hebrew perspective), and which was supposed to be maintained by the activity of the Logos (from a Greek perspective).
So this Word was with God, and was God. The sentence that says this is, in the Greek, as emphatic as possible. Some translators have argued that, because the text literally says "and god was the word," it really means that the Word was a god -- i.e., that the two were essentially separate beings, against the doctrine of the Trinity defined at the Council of Nicaea. However, this is based on a misunderstanding. The arrangement of the words is designed precisely to establish that the Word and God are completely identified; there is one freer translation that I ran across that renders this verse, "And whatever God was, the Word was." The ESV's rendering, which is fairly traditional, is also satisfactory, in my opinion. Likewise, the verse that states that "Without him was not any thing made" seems to indicate that all created things were made only through him, meaning that he himself was uncreated. This flows together with his identity as the divine Wisdom; at first glance, since Sirach (like Proverbs) speaks of wisdom as being created, this may seem nonsensical -- but of course we can hardly imagine that God was without wisdom and then created it. Speaking of wisdom as being created is presumably itself a metaphor -- just as the term begotten in the Nicene Creed is a metaphor.
The motifs of life and light are also recurring themes in John. The image of a war between light and darkness, well-known from Jewish apocalyptic literature, is one of the most persistent in all the works attributed to this Apostle. There is an interesting pun in the closing verse: the word which the ESV translates as "overcome" is also, more frequently, translated as "understood." ("Mastered" may be the only English equivalent that can have both a combative and an intellectual meaning.) The pun is definitely intentional; the conflict between Christ and his enemies in the Gospel ends in him being (apparently) overcome in the Crucifixion, with the abrupt reversal of his own overcoming death, while at the same time the idea that those who reject him also cannot understand him, that they are blind to his signs and deaf to his voice, recurs, especially in the period dealing with the healing of the man blind from birth -- which leads directly into the passage about the Shepherd and the sheep who hear his voice.
The theme of life is not brought out in great detail here, though the theme of light is developed a good deal in the following verses. It remains in the background, the idea of creation and re-creation implied. (For my fellow C. S. Lewis fans, the distinction he made between bios and zoe -- natural life and supernatural life -- in Mere Christianity is not applied in the native Greek use of the terms, as he knew, using the distinction probably for convenience; however, the term used here for "life" is indeed zoe.) However, there's one little textual oddity here. The version the ESV gives here is usual. The punctuation of the text, though, says something more like, "Without him was not any thing made. What came to be in him was life, and the life was the light ..." This may be a hint at the Incarnation, by which Divinity became accessible to man -- "not by the conversion of the Godhead into flesh," the Athanasian Creed says, "but by the taking of the Manhood into God" -- or it may instead, or additionally, be a sort of call-forward to verses 16 to 18, where the contrast between the law given through Moses and the new dispensation under Jesus Christ is made.