The Gospel of John: The Word
What is God?
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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 came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’ Those are the first five verses of the Gospel of John, the fourth Gospel of the New Testament and the one that differs significantly from the other three both in content and in style. Those words are among the most famous ever written, possibly rivaling even the parallel verse in the Old Testament, ‘In the beginning Elohim created the heavens and the earth.’
To answer the question every Jew out there is asking, the Gospels, with the possible exception of Luke, were written by Jewish Christians. Whether we like it or not, whether we admit it or not, the Gospels are part of Jewish history. The story of Jesus and the religious beliefs that sprung from his life and teachings, is an offshoot of Judaism. During Jesus’ lifetime it was nothing more than the Jewish ethical and spiritual teachings of a relative unknown from the Galilee. His preaching/teaching career may have spanned a few years. The more famous events in his life may have spanned a few months. By the time he died, the number of his followers couldn’t have been more than a few thousand. His entire ‘religion’ could have easily died with him.
But it didn’t. The religious belief that was resurrected with the resurrection and the theology that emerged from it was what set Christianity apart from Judaism. However, this divergence took some time. It is likely that at least one, and possibly three, of the Gospels, were written by members of this Jewish Christian sect. It was only in the course of several decades of living as despised competitors in the midst of Jewish communities in Israel that the Jewish Christians severed relations with the Jews.
John, widely considered to be the last of the Gospels, is one of those three. In fact, there is no strong reason to doubt that it is Jewish in origin. The opening verses quoted above, come straight out of the philosophy of Philo. They are remarkable in their straightforward declaration of the core of Christian theology.
John’s gospel continues: ‘He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:10-14). This is gradually becoming less and less Jewish and more and more Christian. It is a fascinating transition from one to the other.
These final five verses, along with the first five verses, formed a core element of Christian theology. Jesus, according to this belief, was not a man. He was not even the foretold ‘Son of Man’ who makes his appearance in Ezekiel and several of the Dead Sea Scrolls. He was not merely the messiah. He was not even a creation. He was, in some sense, the Creator, through whom the world came into being.
To understand how such a belief could have come from Jewish roots should rightly be the subject of an entire book. Our goal here is to describe this belief in only a few paragraphs and to give as brief an explanation as possible of how it evolved from Judaism. We are looking for Jewish images of God. The image that comes out of the Gospel of John can no longer be considered Jewish in any way, shape, or form, even if sprang from Jewish soil. Nevertheless, since it has Jewish roots, we believe it should be included in a survey of Jewish images of God.
‘In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.’ The ‘word’, of course, is nothing other than the Logos from Philo. Of this there is no dispute. The original word for ‘word’ was ‘Logos’. As we know from Philo, the Logos was the creative force that God used in creating the world. The Logos itself was not a creation, though it was not exactly identical with God. It had its feet in both worlds – the creative dimension of God and the created world of the creation. It was a bridge between the two.
It appears from the opening verse that John is stepping right in the middle of that mystery. The ‘word’ was the first thing. It was ‘with’ God. But also it ‘was’ God (accurate translation of this phrase is extremely critical and much debated). How could something be ‘with’ God and ‘be’ God? The answer to this question takes us right into the heart of Trinitarian Christianity. The only way both of these statements could be true and in mutual agreement is if the two together are God. This effectively would be saying that the Logos is both with (i.e. not identical to) God and yet is another aspect of God.
‘He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.’ This seems to repeat that same idea. The Logos was there from the beginning. It wasn’t a creation. On the contrary, all creation happened through the Logos. This goes from every single thing. There isn’t one thing, whether physical or spiritual, angelic or demonic or human, that didn’t come into being through the Logos.
‘He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.’ Part of this seems again like the same idea, with the added element that the Logos was in the world. It wasn’t some outside creative force that looks down upon creation and watches it happen. He was in the world itself. This already sounds more Christian, but it could still be from Philo. The lack of acknowledgment and acceptance of the Logos is surprising. This sounds like it is veering from Philo. Why people didn’t recognize the Logos or accept it is left totally unclear. Perhaps people weren’t ready for it, or simply were unable to deal with their own creator being right in their midst.
‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.’ This already, is Christian and not Philo. The Logos is no longer some creative force, whether part of God or not. It is something to be believed in, and belief in it granted spiritual power. Believers received the power to become ‘children of God’ and to no longer be mere flesh and blood human beings. To be children of God was to be ‘born of God’.
‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.’ This is full blown Christianity, though it is still missing the name Jesus. But the Logos has become flesh and human and lives right among people. He was visible for all to see in all his glory. Although all people could become ‘born of God’, he was the ‘only Son’ of the father. All human beings could be children of God, but only one was God’s son.
In these several verses, John took the image of God from the standard ‘Philoic’ Logos to the new and radical Christian Trinity (or at least two thirds of it). The transformation is so smooth that it almost seems like a natural progression. The Logos was there from the beginning. It was God’s creative impulse and thought. It created everything. It was part of the world. The world didn’t quite understand it but it was there. Those who accepted it received spiritual insight and became different human beings. This Logos is Jesus. He is God. He is close to the Father but nobody has seen the Father. But they have seen Jesus, so through him they know God.
How’s that for simple. In this effortless progression, Jewish Christianity, which was rapidly losing the Jewish part and equally rapidly gaining the Christian part, transformed the Logos from a divine creative force into a divine person. If anything, this whole theological sequence should tell us something interesting about images of God. They do not remain stationary. An ancient image that started off in a certain direction will become a modernized image that may be heretical by ancient standards. Or that ancient image may split into two or more modernized versions, each of which vehemently anathematizes the others. This is what happened here. The palpable image went through various phases in Biblical and second temple Judaism. Eventually it reached a crossroads. When it combined with an intellectual image of wisdom and the Logos, it had to make a decision. Was it going to remain nothing more than a theological idea or was it going to become real as in a person. These were the twin paths of Judaism and Christianity.
Perceiving the Image
Obviously, this image hit home in a big way with human spiritual needs. Christianity became popular to a degree that Judaism could never approach. Shortly before the destruction of the temple it is estimated that about one tenth of the population of the Roman Empire was either Jewish or ‘God fearers’ – gentiles who accepted Jewish theology without fully converting into the Jewish religion. Most of those ‘God fearers’ and likely many of those Jews became Christian within a few decades. Within a few centuries, Judaism was a persecuted religion on the run while Christianity was the official religion of the Empire. Within a millennium Jews lived as a hated but begrudgingly tolerated minority within a world that was split between Christians and Moslems. Something about the Christian image clicked in the human soul that no Jewish image could ever hope to match.
What are Jews supposed to do with this image, other than to reject it? Most Jews would answer that question with an emphatic, ‘Nothing’. Just leave the image alone and let them have it. But maybe there is more that Jews can take from an image that is an offshoot of one or more of their own images. Maybe the image of the Logos being both Creator and within the creation needs to be brought back into Judaism. Jews rejected it, both because the religion took a more legal and philosophical turn and because they had to deny anything Christian. We’re past that stage now. We are no longer encumbered by forming our dogmas based on them not being Christian. We no longer need to restrict ourselves to medieval philosophy or antiquated legalisms. Perhaps this Logos idea needs to be brought back in. Perhaps there needs to be a halfway meeting ground between God and the world. If God is allowed to float out of the universe and out of our lives, we will be left with just the world and no God.
This is a little daring, perhaps even crazy. The knee-jerk reaction to anything along these lines is to reject it outright. But who says that Judaism doesn’t need an injection of spirituality? Who says that an ancient and ultimately Jewish idea cannot provide that spirituality? Is Logos kosher?
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