The prologue of John’s gospel has been a subject of vast and deep investigation. The studies are mostly on the origin and structure of the prologue. The reason for this particular orientation of Johannine studies is the use of logos (word) as a title for Jesus in the prologue. The title does not appear in the rest of the gospel. In the whole New Testament further it is so used only in First John 1: 1 and Revelation 19: 13. Hence the question whether prologue is an original Johannine tradition or not? Is the Greek philosophical world vision its origin?
The structure of John 1: 1-18 may be drawn up in the following way.
At the beginning and at the end it presents the relationship of Jesus to God. The witness by John the Baptist is repeated parallel. So too in parallel places the relationship of Jesus to the world is articulated. At the centre is the presentation of the new situation in life resulting from accepting Jesus (being children of God, born through divine power alone). Here we find a major inclusion between verses of John 1: 1-2 and John 1: 18. Both speak about the relationship of Jesus to God.
The elements of the literary form used here belong to a historical narration, with apocalyptic aspects and constituents of faith confession.
The three major thematic concerns are: the relationship between Jesus and God, the relationship between Jesus and the world, and the reaction of the world to Jesus.
The relationship between Jesus and God is presented above all in John 1: 1-2 and 18. “In the beginning” is an expression that reminds us of Genesis 1: 1. It initiates us to the account of new creation that happens through the person of Jesus and hid ministry climaxing in his death and resurrection.
The main theme of the verse is Word (logos). It is the medium for articulating the deep, personal and dynamic relationship between Jesus and the Father.
This usage of ‘Word’ can come from the general influence of the Hellenistic culture but it need not have the semantic content of the Hellenistic culture. So here the word “Word” has a typical Old Testament and Jewish background. The absence of this title for Jesus in the rest of the gospel of John shows that probably this was an existing hymn in favour of the “Word” used in the liturgy of the community but was taken and utilized by the evangelist as an introduction to his gospel. The insertion of the two parts on John the Baptist (Cf. Jn 1: 6-8 and 15) is probably the result of the redaction in of the new function of the text as a prologue, introducing the main characters of the gospel story: Jesus , John the Baptist, the disciples, and the enemies.
So the meaning of “Word” is based on the Word-theology and Sapiential theology of the Old Testament. The “Word” is the inner being of God. It is the crystallization and interpretation of the being of God. The “Word” is the uttered form of “the wind, breath, or spirit” of God. God created everything through the “Word” (Gen 1: 1f), letting his life overflow in the self-revelatory process. Logos is the self-gift of the Divine, the self-articulation of the Divine Mystery.
The Sapiential theology of the Old Testament distinguishes three stages in its development:
- The wisdom as an attribute of God.
- The wisdom as personified accompanier of God.
- The wisdom as identified with God.
These three stages are found in relation to “Word” and God (Jn 1: 1-2). So the “Word” is the medium to explain the intimate and deep relation between God and Jesus. Jesus is God himself.
The pre-existence of the Word is a speciality of John. Johnannine Christology has the following structure:
The intimate relationship of Jesus to the Father as articulated through the medium of the “Word” is a dynamic relationship demanding constant mutual movement. This is shown through the preposition “towards” pros (Greek) “the Word was with (towards) God.” This intimate relationship is implied in the last verse (Jn 1: 18): “No one has ever seen God. It is God, the only Son who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”
The historical existence of the “Word,” that is, the relationship of the “Word” to the world is summarized in John 1: 14: If the verb “to be” “einai” (Greek) was used in the first verses, here the verb used is “to become.” What “was” has now “become” ginomai (Greek). The verb refers to the process of being perfectly part of human history, the spatio-temporal situation of human existence. The “becoming” of the Word is not a mere external and superficial phenomenon. It is not mere putting on the human form. It is perfect identification with the humanness in all aspects.
This is clearer in the usage of the word “flesh” (sarx in Greek) instead of “human being.” The word “flesh” is used by St. Paul in a negative sense as the source of sin (Cf. Rom 7: 14f; Gal 5: 16f). But John uses it in the positive sense. “Flesh” in Greek can mean the following: the substance of human body, the consanguinity, the opposite of spirit (St. Paul), the created human nature. John is using the word to signify “the human nature” in all its dimensions inclusive of weakness. So the evangelist asserts that the word become flesh is a perfect human being as we all are. “In everything he became one with us except sin” (Heb 4: 15): “Flesh” represents humanness “in toto.”
“To pitch the tent” is the biblical expression with the background of Exodus (Ex 25). God who brought the Israelites out of Egypt shared their fate every way, by dwelling with them in the tent just like them. The Word incarnate is the definitive appearance of God in the midst of people. In the presence of Jesus the decisive Exodus is taking place.
“We have seen his glory…”: The background of Exodus continues. The people of Israel recognized the presence of Yahweh in the tent by seeing the cloud over the tent and at the door of the tent. So too the decisive presence of God in Jesus the incarnate Word is recognized by seeing the glory of God manifested in his ministry, that is, signs and discourses.
“Full of grace and truth”: “Grace and truth” Hesed and Emet (Hebrew) are words embodying the nature of God: Compassionate love and fidelity. God is grace and God is truth. These words belong essentially to the covenant vocabulary. Yahweh in making the covenant with Israel offered his very self to them and God remained ever faithful to his Word. God demanded the same faithful love from Israel. In Jesus, the incarnate Word the grace and truth of God are perfectly revealed. It also reveals that in Jesus new covenant is being established between God and human beings.
“From his fullness we have received grace upon grace”: The expression “grace upon grace” is a superlative form. In Hebrew language the superlative is formed through repetition of words to mean “abundant grace.” It shows that Jesus is God himself and so our relationship with Jesus becomes the source of abundant and infinite grace. It is interpreted also in relation to Salvation History, the second “grace” as the Old Testament revelation, which is fulfilled in the New Revelation which is implied in the first “grace.”
The evangelist, then, shows how the new covenant is superior to the old (Jn 1: 17). The old is represented by “Law” which “was given” by God to people through Moses. So no direct contact was made between God and the people. The new is presented as “grace and truth” and they “came” through Jesus Christ. In the former the verb is “was given through” which implies a mediator and in the latter the verb is “came” which signifies direct and immediate relationship, because in Jesus, the incarnate Word, God himself has come down to us.
What was the reaction of the people to Jesus? In John 1: 9-13 the reactions and responses are reported. There are those who do not accept the revelation of God in Jesus. However, the importance is given to the response of “believing” or “receiving.” They are given the power to become the “children of God” born purely through divine power. By accepting Jesus, one gets the very same nature of God and in this second birth no human power in any way is in play. This is shown through the expression, “blood, will of the flesh, will of man” (Jn 1: 13). The aim of the evangelist is to bring the believer to the realization of his/her dignity as child of God with the capacity to behave like God. This theme John develops later in chapter three.
John 1: 18 is an opening to the next section. The intimate, unique, personal, and dynamic relationship of Jesus to the Father qualifies him as the only authentic revealer of the Father. Jesus has “made him known” exago (Greek). The following narrations, according to the evangelist, will reveal who the Father is. The ministry of Jesus is an “exegesis” (Inerpretation) of the Father.
The prologue, thus, has clarified to us in a very articulated way who Jesus is, what is his relationship to God and to the human beings and how we must, renewing our faith-relationship become more authentic children of God. The prologue invites us to renew our option for Jesus and to persevere in this personal relationship.
Functionally, the prologue contains the main parts of the gospel of John in a synthesis. All the verbs and nouns used here will be used in every chapter hereafter. Hence rightly, it is an overture to the whole gospel.