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.)
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.