John 1:1-14: A Canonical, Hebraic View

           John 1:1-14: A Canonical, Hebraic View          

By

Clyde Brown

Clyde's presentation and notes are intended to be guides toward a different, but complementary, exegesis of John. The sound explanations of this passage previously offered by a study of Greek grammar and of the oft used literary device of personification sufficiently demonstrate that the preexistence or God-ness of Christ is not John's message. Our proposal offers additional evidence demonstrating that same conclusion.  

A recent and welcome trend in biblical studies has been the "Whole Bible   Approach" or "Canonical Approach" toward understanding Scripture.   "Canonical Criticism," as it is called by scholars, sees the Bible as   connective and complementary, not divisive and disjunctive. The end   product of canonization, the whole Bible, needs to be understood as a   whole without the artificial labels of "Old" and "New" applied. The very   shape of the canon (meaning "rule, measuring line"; i.e., the   authoritative books that God inspired his servants to include) is itself   viewed as presenting a consistent, cohesive message: One God, One Way, One   Plan being worked out in various ways within various cultures from Genesis   to Revelation. The canonical approach (CA), pioneered by the scholar   Brevard Childs, doesn't accept the popular notion that the Bible is simply   a disparate collection of history and stories frequently unconnected or at   odds with each other. Rather, the CA seriously means that the canon has   authority, is normative, and is the product of the same inspiration upon   its editors and assemblers as upon the prime authors of the books   themselves. This means that the Bible is or should be the rule of faith   and practice.

  Further it means that the content of the Bible is not to be found   somewhere behind the text, but in the text. This approach   relates to our study of John 1:1-14.The canonical approach takes the   Hebrew Scriptures seriously. Historically, Christianity confronted   first-century Judaism through the Greek form of the Jewish scriptures, and   thus the NT is stamped indelibly by the Septuagint. Yet the theological   issue of how Christians relate to the Jewish scriptures is not a Greek   enterprise. One of the main reasons the Christian church included the   Hebrew text of the OT rather than the Greek form was its theological   concern to preserve this common textual bond. NT writers may have written   in Greek, but their theological thought world was Hebraic. They were Jews   writing to, for the most part, other Jews, or a mixed audience of both   Jews and Gentiles. Their writings were informed by the only Scripture   available to them, the OT. The NT continues the time-conditioned   revelation of the Holy One of Israel. Much of the NT is simply quotes or   allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures. The NT continues with new and greater   works of God, long predicted and long awaited: The Christ Event. The OT is   not simply a foil for the NT allowing Christians to pick it over, looking   for the fresh among a largely wilted bowl of lettuce. As Childs warns, "As   the history of exegesis eloquently demonstrates, a Christian church   without the Old Testament is in constant danger of turning the faith into   various forms of Gnostic, mystic, or romantic speculation." Unfortunately,   this is the case with popular presentations of John 1:1-14.

In this presentation we suggest John's presentation of God, the Word, and   of Christ is best understood in the context of his theological worldview:   the Hebrew Bible.

  (For further study on the CA, see The Flowering of Old Testament   Theology, Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, Indiana, 1992, pp. 321-345; or any   of the numerous books by Brevard S. Childs. See also a thorough article on   the CA by Dr. Charles V. Dorothy, August 1989 ACD Newsletter; write   for a free copy.)

—Kenneth Westby


  There are different ways to approach the meaning of John 1: 1-14   without accepting that Jesus Christ preexisted his human birth. Although   we will draw the conclusion and submit there is but one God and Father,   and one Lord Jesus Christ, our hope in this split presentation is to   suggest an alternative explanation with very little if any change in the   traditional translation.

Our New Testament texts of the Gospel of John come down to us in Greek,   while the thought world of John was Hebraic. In fact, Professor Marvin   Wilson writes:

  "In this chapter we have emphasized the importance of understanding the   Bible through Hebrew eyes. The writers are Hebrew, the culture is Hebrew,   the religion is Hebrew, and the concepts are Hebrew.   "1

Professor Wilson states it well. The cradle from which the gospel (good   news) of God through Jesus Christ sprang was the bedrock of the Hebrew   Bible. The apostle John was a Hebrew, and our purpose is to go behind the   Greek and see John 1: 1-14 through Hebrew eyes.

We ran our paper by Professor George W. Buchanan, who speaks and writes   Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. His comments sprinkled throughout the paper   were most encouraging, and his final comment to the entire paper was that   "it seems reasonable."

John's Hebraic Thought

The Apostle John's thought world was Hebraic, yet we have his Gospel as   copies of copies in Greek. It makes little difference if John penned his   Gospel in Greek or oversaw a Greek scribe in the transliteration of his   Hebraic thought world into Greek. The Torah, Prophets, and Writings were   the cradle from which the gospel [good news] of God was brought into the   world.

We suggest that in John 1: 1-2 the apostle John (1) legally and (2)   figuratively places Jesus Christ in the beginning-much in the same way   that John in Rev. 13:8 legally and figuratively places the Lamb of God   slain from the foundation of the world. In God's salvation history Jesus   Christ the Lamb of God was slain for the sins of the world at the founding   of the world. This was in the plan of God from the beginning. This is   typical Jewish Midrash commentary, using figurative or allegorical   language, pointing toward a fact, a reality.

  The Talmud teaches that the name of the Messiah was one of the seven   things that were created before the world was created. This is a Midrash   on Psalm 72:17; 93:3. The essence of this is said best as "calling things   that are not as though they were."2

The other six things in addition to (1) the name of the Messiah that were   created before the world was created were (2) the Torah, (3) repentance,   (4) the Garden of Eden, (5) Gey-Hinnom, (6) the throne of glory, and (7)   the Temple. It would not be strange at all in Hebraic thinking for John to   place the Lamb of God as though he were slain from the foundation of the   world.

It would be typical Jewish Midrash for John to place the Messiah as the   Word of God's eternal light and life in the beginning. The believers of   John's day from their Hebrew worldview would have recognized John's   rhetoric in 1:1-2 as a figurative Midrash. The other six things   figuratively created before the world was created may be pointing to the   fact that whatever was in God's plan was as good as done, even if it had   yet to come to pass in the course of time.

In Hebrew thought, things like (1) calling things that are not as though   they were, (2) John's teaching of the Lamb of God slain from the   foundation, or (3) the Messiah being the Word of God's eterna1light and   life in the beginning would never have been taken as literal by the   believers in the Hebrew worldview of John's day.

The Greek Church fathers' Hellei1istic worldview, while ignorant of the   Hebrew worldview, took literally what John was presenting as figurative,   to bring the Word of light and life to the conclusion of the Word made   flesh in John 1: 14. Can you imagine the Christology the Hellenistic   Church fathers would have come up with had they taken "Jesus Christ as the   lamb slain from the foundation of the world" literally?

Midrash

A Midrash is a commentary that can have a mixture of (1) literal, (2)   allegorical, and (3) figurative language, and even the esoteric mysteries.   If your eye offends you pluck it out. Or if your hand offends you cut it   off. Does this sound familiar? Do we take it literally, or is it   figurative? I think we get the point. Jesus was using shocking figurative   language that pointed to the reality of putting sin out of people's lives.   What then in John 1: 1-14 is literal, and what is allegorical, to be taken   figuratively?

In John 1:14, John's conclusion, the eternal Word of light and life that   was figuratively with God in the beginning is literally made flesh to   dwell among us. John is presenting figuratively that Jesus Christ in the   beginning was the Word of light and life that was with God that has now   become reality in flesh.

  "In typical rabbinic Midrash John has placed Jesus Christ as the Word of   God's eternal light and life that was with Elohim [God]   in the beginning, and the Word was elohim."

  When we place the Hebrew thought behind the Greek, could John be   identifying Jesus the Messiah come in the flesh as elohim to the world?   Moses was elohim to Pharaoh, Exodus 7: 1 The Messiah is addressed as   elohim in Psalm 45:6, Hebrews 1:8.3

How would the first century Jews, proselytes and God-fearers take John's   identification of Jesus Christ as elohim to represent the one Elohim   creator of all things? The Greek has the Word as Theos, who was with Theon   in the beginning. How would a Hebrew-thinking believer convert Theon and   Theos back into Hebrew?

The context determines the content. Would it be in the beginning   (figuratively) the Word (Jesus Christ) was with Elohim, and the Word   (Jesus Christ) was elohim?

Would this shock a devout Torah-keeping Jew? Not if it brought to mind the   one Moses wrote about. It would bring to mind the prophet Moses spoke   about, Deut. 18: 15. A series of prophets would come after Moses and   eventually lead to the prophet Messiah. Examine the following:

"The disciples state; we have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law   [Torah], and the prophets also wrote-Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph"   (In. 1:44).

If the Hebrew is placed behind the Greek, the Messiah (figuratively) was   the Word that in the beginning was with Elohim, and the Word that was   elohim. This is not only (1) good Hebrew; it is (2) good Rabbinic Midrash.   The mission field of the apostles was the synagogues. Over and over again   in the book of Acts even Paul in his mission as the apostle to the   Gentiles went into the synagogue. The Pharisees in the first century were   very much into making proselytes of the Gentiles in the Diaspora.

In the Synagogues

  In the synagogues were Jews, proselytes, and God-fearers. The God-fearer   was a Gentile who had accepted the one God of Israel but stopped short of   becoming a full proselyte through circumcision. It should not be   surprising the early Jesus movement was made up of Jews, proselytes, and   God-fearers. The point should be made that those who accepted Jesus as the   Messiah were taught from the Torah, Prophets, and Writings in the   synagogues. As James was to state: "Moses is read in the synagogues on   the Sabbath" (Acts 15:21).

The Gentile proselytes and God-fearers who became followers of Jesus   understood the Hebraic worldview. This means they would have read John's   Gospel from a Hebraic worldview and not as a Hellenist. Would it not be   better if we did the same as those in the first century and read John   1:1-14 with Hebrew eyes, the worldview of the first-century believers in   Christ?

A simple thing to understand is that the Rabbis in the synagogues used   commentary in exposition, sometimes as figurative and allegorical   language, or literal, or a combination of all in their teaching methods.   We would not think, nor did the later Gentile Church fathers, of taking   John's comment as the Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world   as literal. Yet, when John applies the same figurative allegorical   commentary to John 1: 1-2, this the Gentile Church fathers took as   literal.

A World of Difference

There is a world of difference depending upon the cultural society one is   raised in. Those who were raised in a monotheistic culture as the children   of Israel would think differently from those with a Hellenistic   background, unless taught the Hebraic worldview from the Torah, Prophets,   and Writings. To the Hebrews, when you ask which one God do you worship,   they reply the "One," Elohim.

To the Gentile brought up in a Hellenistic pagan society, when you say   God, they ask which one? Without a basic understanding of how the ancient   Hebrews thought, we could be reading through the wrong lens.

Although we would not totally agree with all that the Jewish-roots   scholars teach, they have successfully researched the Jewish worldview of   New Testament times. If for no other reason than to understand the ancient   Hebrew thinking, it is well worth the time to read the many books on the   Jewish roots of Christianity. There are also many books out now on the   Dead Sea Scrolls translated into English, as well as ancient Jewish   literature transliterated into English.

  How can we understand the historical context of our New Testament if we   don't   understand the culture, customs, and worldview of the early New Testament   believers?

For instance, Luke records in his Gospel, 4:15-21, that Jesus went into   the synagogue and as was his custom stood up to read. The scroll of Isaiah   was handed to him, and he stood up to read. After reading in Isaiah what   we now have as chapter 61, Jesus read only part of the text, sat down and   began to deliver a Midrash identifying himself as the Messiah who is   spoken of in the text.

The point is that Jesus is following the order and customs of the   synagogue, to stand while reading the specific text, then to sit while   expounding and giving commentary in explanation of what was just read from   the scrolls. In other words, Jesus used the exegesis and method of   teaching as the custom developed by the sages.

Once we understand the methods of exegesis and teaching in New Testament   days, not only can this teaching method be detected throughout the Gospel   of John; it can be detected in all the Gospels, letters, and epistles   throughout the New Testament. The entire gospel [good news] as taught and   expounded by the New Testament authors was according to the teaching in   the Torah, Prophets, and Writings.

  Therefore if Jesus Christ was a greater prophet than Moses, and Moses was   called elohim, how much more would John refer to the Messiah as elohim?   What would have been shocking to those from the synagogues who became part   of the Jesus movement was if John claimed Jesus Christ as the one Elohim   who created the world. John states it was through Christ the world   was created and not by Christ. This is an important distinction   that should be noted.

From the Hebraic perspective, John did not say Jesus as the Word   (figuratively) was Elohim (Greek, Theon). John stated figuratively, Jesus   as the Word was with Elohim, or Greek Theon. And the Word, figuratively,   in typical Jewish Midrash commentary, was elohim.

In placing the Hebrew worldview behind the Greek, it is not our intention   to suggest that dealing with the Greek is not a valid way to establish   that Jesus Christ did not preexist. Our purpose is to suggest that John in   using typical Jewish rabbinic teaching methods to place Jesus Christ as   the Word of light and life in the beginning with Elohim is a way of   explanation without changing the traditional Greek transliteration into   English.

We have found that to translate "if' instead of "he" or "him," in John 1:   1-2, is not all that satisfying to some English readers or even to some   who understand Greek.

However, if the historical Midrash rabbinic teaching prevalent in the   synagogue is first explained as used in New Testament days, then John   using these methods as commentary in presenting the gospel of Jesus Christ   begins to make perfectly good sense.

  Midrash, as explained earlier, was a rabbinic method of teaching.   Literal and allegorical and figurative language was common in New   Testament times. Just as we observed in John's comments in Revelation   13:8, in figurative language the Lamb of God was slain from the foundation   of the world, a concept not to be taken literally. Neither should we so   take John's figurative language in John 1: 1-2. It should not be   surprising that Jesus Christ himself used the typical Jewish methods in   his teaching.

What Did Jesus Use?

Jesus often used the figurative and literal Jewish commentary teaching   methods, and it should not be surprising that the apostle John does the   same. It was an accepted method in New Testament days, before and after.   Calling things that are not as though they were is typical Jewish Midrash.

For instance, did Jesus mean literally to pluck out your eyes if they   offended? Or cut off your hand if it offended? This is allegorical,   figurative language that points to a practical solution. Whatever sin is   in one's life is to be put out. That was what the figurative was intended   for-to jar the mind, to wake one up to deal with sin.

As stated before, reading from the Hebraic worldview, which is formed from   the Hebrew Bible, is different from reading from the Hellenistic worldview   of the later Gentile Church fathers. Jesus is using figurative commentary,   that which was determined and foreordained by God for him before the world   was. Notice what is recorded:

  "And now, Father, glorify me at your side with the glory I had with you   before the world was" (In.   17:5).

Remember the seven things that were figuratively created before the world   was created? One was the name of the Messiah. Those who believed God was   one would recognize immediately where John was speaking in figurative   language and where in literal terms. We read that "before Abraham I Am . .   ." (In. 8:58). This too would have been recognized by believers in Christ   to be figurative language. The unbelieving Pharisees commented as though   the comment of Jesus was to be taken literally.

They knew better; they understood he was referring to himself as the   Messiah. The name Immanuel, God with us, Isaiah 7:14, Jesus as the agent   of God, as God with us, means in the case of Jesus I AM HE. Remember, the   Pharisees did not remark, "You are claiming to be God," when Jesus made   the comment. They knew exactly what Jesus meant; figuratively He was the   light and life of God in the beginning.

  James D.G. Dunn, a leading New Testament scholar, states; John uses Jewish   Midrash for Jesus as the Son of God, emphasizing the Father and Son   relationship, while the synoptic Gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke,   emphasize Jesus more as the son of man.4

The Word "I"

What is most interesting to observe is the number of times "I" is used for   self-reference to Jesus Christ in John's Gospel compared to the synoptics,   Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Kingdom teaching is just the opposite in John as   compared to the synoptics. Consider the word "I" for personal reference to   Jesus Christ as the Son of God. We find it in the proportion below:

  "Matthew,   17. Mark, 9, Luke, 37.   In Johns Gospel Jesus uses 'I'1I8times.

"On the other hand, the use of 'kingdom' in comparison: Matthew, 47, Mark,   18, Luke, 37." "In John's Gospel only 5 times, thereof the five in the   Nicodemus dialog alone" (ibid.).

What this means is a whole other subject and story. For our purpose it is   sufficient to validate John's Gospel as Paul's letter and epistles, and   that is to build from the Kingdom teaching in the synoptics to the   Christology of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. Although John's Gospel is   dissimilar in many ways to the synoptic Gospels, it has the same   inspiration from God. We never have to worry; we have the Holy Word of God   in both the Old and New Testaments.

John is using Midrash commentary in advanced Christology, placing the Son   of God into historical context—in other words, what Jesus would have said   as the Son of God rather than what he said as the son of man. This is   commentary with the advanced understanding of Jesus Christ as the Son of   God and perfectly legitimate within the historical context of the New   Testament.

More to Say?

Jesus said to his disciples that he had more to say but they could not   contain it at that time. It is perfectly legitimate for John to present   the further things Jesus had to say that could not earlier be said. John's   commentary is inspired Scripture. We just need to understand the   difference when John is speaking in (1) terms of reality, and when (2)   figurative terminology is being used. In the rabbinic methods of teaching   we read:

"In the beginning was the Word [Christ figuratively] and the Word was with   Elohim, and the Word [Jesus Christ figuratively] was elohim" (Jn. 1:1).

Then we have the following:

". . . the same in the beginning [figurative] was with Elohim" (Jn 1:2).

Continuing, we have the following:

". . . all things were made through him [Jesus Christ] and without him was   not anything made that was made" (Jn. 1:3)—and then: ". . . in him was   life and the life was the light of men" (Jn 1:4). It continues with: ". .   . the light shines in darkness; and the darkness does not comprehend" (Jn.   1:5).

Thereafter, we follow with these texts: 1:6-8, John the Baptist enters the   picture to witness the light, and in v. 9 Jesus Christ is the light that   lights every man who comes into the world. 1: 10-13 leads to the   conclusion in v. 14: Jesus Christ is now the Word of light and life made   flesh to dwell among us.

Simple Terminology

Let's see if we can put things into simple terminology. John's conclusion   in v. 14 is that the Word of God is made flesh to dwell among us. John   wishes to make the connection that Jesus Christ was in God's Word and plan   in the beginning. The best way to accomplish that is through typical   Jewish Midrash commentary. In figurative terminology, place Jesus Christ,   who was made flesh, in the beginning with Elohim as the eternal Word of   light and life.

Since this was the method of teaching, common in the synagogue, John's   figurative language would have been very familiar to his readers, most of   whom came out of the synagogues. Furthermore, when the whole Gospel of   John is taken in context, Jesus himself, in John 17:3, states plainly   there is only one true Elohim God.

In v. 5 Jesus in typical Jewish Midrash method is asking the one true God   to glorify him with his own self with the glory he had with the father   before the world [cosmos] was. Now, if Jesus were literally with the one   true God in the beginning, was he then a false God? If there is only one   true God, then all the rest must be untrue Gods, right?

If we believe that John was speaking in the figurative sense, Midrash, in   Rev. 13:8, and Jesus himself declares there is only one true Elohim God,   then it is only common sense to see the figurative statements of Jesus as   a Midrash, as he had heard so often in the synagogues growing up as a lad.

Since the Holocaust, many Bible scholars have taken a more favorable view   of ancient Jewish literature and from a new perspective. Concerning both   pre- and post- 70 CE, the Jewish literature is being read for its value   rather than finding ways to degrade it in order to show the superiority of   Christianity as replacing Israel as the people of God.

  This process is called a paradigm shift in thinking. It requires thinking   outside the box, the box being the Hellenistic worldview that has   permeated Christianity from the mid-second century CE. After researching   the historical evidence of the battles and bloodshed among the Gentile   Christians over the nature of God and His Son Jesus Christ, one author   titled his book   When Jesus Became God.5

Critical Date of 325 C.E.

In 325 CE the pagan emperor Constantine gathered the bishops in Nicaea,   and, with sword bearers encircling the council, favored the view of   Athanasius—and by imperial decree Jesus the Son of God became God the Son.   Up until the middle of that century no author was identified as writing   the Gospels. By deduction, the Gentile Church fathers assigned authors to   the synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, and the apostle John as the   author of the fourth Gospel.

In all of the infighting by the Gentile Christian church, the different   sides on the issue of the nature of God and Jesus Christ never appealed to   the Hebrew Scriptures as the foundation of the Gospels, letters, and   epistles we now know as the New Testament.

It seems it never occurred to the different sides of the issue that the   gospel all of the apostles taught, even Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles,   came directly out of the Hebrew scrolls, the Torah (law), Prophets, and   Writings.

From the official decree in 325 CE to the Holocaust of Hitler in which six   million Jews, two-thirds of the population in Europe, died horrible   deaths, Jesus Christ has been considered to be God. In the last few   decades more than a few New Testament scholars have begun to peel away the   Hellenistic theology and Christology and discover once again the true   relationship between the one God and Father and the Son of God, the Lord   Jesus Christ.

I would like to close my part of the presentation with a statement. At the   end of the day, when all has been said and done, a choice must be made.   Are we of Constantine and Athanasius, or are we of the Jewish   Hebrew-thinking apostle John?

-Clyde Brown


Endnotes:

  1 Our Father Abraham, Professor Marvin R Wilson, p. 29.

  2 Jewish New Testament Commentary, David H. Stem, p. 154.

3 The Doctrine of the Trinity.   Anthony F. Buzzard and Charles F.   Hunting, p. 24.

  4 The Evidence for Jesus, James D.G Dunn, p. 34.

5 When Jesus Became God,   Richard E. Rubenstein.


APPENDIX

Did Jesus and His Apostles Use the Exegesis and

Methods of the Synagogue In Their Teaching?

By Clyde Brown

  After the Babylonian captivity, Ezra the scribe began what developed into   four methods of exegesis and teaching that became prevalent in the   synagogues from approximately 200 BCE to present. The contention of our   paper on John 1:1-14, as well as other texts in the Gospel of John, is   best understood in context of the teaching methods used by Jesus Christ   and the apostles (Everyman's Talmud, by A Cohen, p. xxxvi).

The four methods of exegeses and teaching were:

  Peshat   = using the literal meaning, the simple.

  Remez   = alluding to a former text or allegorical figurative explanation.

  Darash   = to seek. [Exposition] i.e. Homiletical commentary.

  Sod =   A mystery, i.e. esoteric teaching, the deeper mysteries.

  MIDRASH = Homiletical commentary   that can include a variety of things: parables, allegories, figurative   speech, literal meaning, and other types of exposition.

Jesus Christ and all of the apostles and disciples of the early Jesus 1   movement were born and raised in the context of late second temple I   Judaism. Therefore it should not be surprising that their method of,   teaching came from the synagogues, which they grew up attending.

  For our purpose in setting John 1:1-14 into the Hebraic historical   context, the Peshat, literal meaning, Remez, an allusion to a previous   text, or allegorical figurative language, and Darash, exposition,   commentary, which altogether is a Jewish Midrash, we submit were used by   John in the texts in question.)

  John in 1: 1-14 is using a Midrash, root word Darash, as commentary in   John 1: 1-2, which is figurative language. John uses the same figurative   language in Revelation 13:8, the Lamb of God slain from the foundation of   the world.

  In our paper we submit that John 1:1-2 is a Midrash placing Jesus Christ   figuratively as the Word of God's light and life in the beginning. John is   alluding back to the beginning in Geneses 1:1, the method of Remez,   placing Jesus Christ figuratively as the Word in the beginning.

  From John 1:3-14 John is teaching what is reality, Peshat, which comes to   a conclusion in John 1: 14, the Word of the light and life of God made   flesh.

  To simplify in English, in John 1:1, in the beginning, is alluding to   Genesis 1:1. Also in John 1:1-2, John is using figurative or allegorical,   Remez, as though Jesus were the Word of God's eternal light and life in   the beginning. From John 1:3-13 is in reality Peshat, which leads to the   Word made flesh in John 1:14.

This paper is not to suggest that using the Greek behind the English is not a valid method of exegesis. What should be clear to all is that behind the English is the Greek, and behind the Greek is the Hebraic or Aramaic thought and worldview of the New Testament texts.

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