In the Christmas season, an old man’s thoughts (at least this old man’s thoughts) turn to John, arguably the most incarnational of the gospels.
Most of us are used to thinking of John as the brother of James, the son of Zebedee, the disciple who leaned on Jesus’ breast at the last supper, the disciple to whom Jesus commended his mother from the cross, the disciple who was exiled for a time on the island of Patmos where he received the visions that became the book of Revelation, the disciple who lived to be 100, and, when he and the first century were both in their 90’s, wrote the fourth gospel and the letters of John. There are still scholars who believe that was all one John, though there are others who think no one person could have done that, and that there must have been two or more Johns.
But I have been setting that issue aside to focus on the Gospel of John, particularly on the first 14 verses, often called John’s Prologue. We may begin with a wide observation: that everyone who talks about a deity talks about its two aspects: how much it is like us, that is, its presence; and how much different it is from us, that is, its remoteness, its otherness. The deity must be something like us, else how could we even talk about it? Yet it must be something other than us, else why would it be worth talking about? Its presence among us we usually call its immanence; its remoteness, we call its transcendence. (Immanence,” by the way, meaning “swelling within,” is pronounced the same as as “imminence,” meaning” about to happen,” and “eminent,” meaning “high in station.” It’s confusing, I agree.)
Early accounts of Jesus notice that Jesus seems to embody both aspects of God. The first three gospels–the synoptics—emphasize Jesus manifesting God’s immanence, his being like us. They talk about Jesus as man. He is born in a manger. He has a hometown. He has siblings and parents. He gets tired. He gets angry. He celebrates the Passover with his friends. He falls asleep on a boat. He sweats blood. He teaches. He has nowhere to lay his head. He stumbles carrying the cross. He thirsts. This Jesus wears sandals.
In John, on the other hand, Jesus wears seven-league boots. Theologians say John exhibits “high Christology.” John’s gospel, particularly in the first 14 verses, are more about Jesus manifesting as God’s unlikeness from us—His transcendence. John’s Jesus does not get tired, he does not fall asleep. He does not stumble carrying the cross, nor does he thirst. He gives discourses in which he continually refers to God as his father. In the prologue, Jesus was present with God from before time (“He was in the beginning with God”), and He was co-creator of the universe (“Through Him all things were made”), themes which are reinforced in Hebrews 4 and Colossians 1:14.
John’s unique features allow it to connect the gospel to many other things. John’s is a kind of Velcro gospel that attaches itself to anything it comes near. And it comes near to four things.
First, John connects with Genesis. By beginning his Gospel with the words “In the beginning,” John deliberately connects the life of Jesus to the book of Genesis, which begins with those same three words. And by using the Greek for Word, John calls our attention to that fact God SPOKE creation into existence then, just as now he speaks into existence the new creation, redeemed by Christ.
Second, John connects with the wisdom tradition in the Hebrew Scriptures. He uses language that resonates with those passages in the Hebrew Scriptures that talk about Wisdom. In the canonical Old Testament, the best known of those is Proverbs 8, but in the apocryphal books there are even more compelling passages in the Wisdom of Solomon, chapter 9, and the book of Ecclesiasticus chapter 24.
Third, John connects with Greek philosophy. He uses the word Logos to refer to Jesus. In Greek he says “In the beginning was the Word.” En arche en ho logos. By doing so, he connects Christ to Greek philosophy in which this word is common and crucial. Logos can mean simply word or speech, and it is often used this way in the NT. and it can also mean reason or logic. But in Greek philosophy it often has a much wider meaning, as the animating principle of the universe. In this usage, it can be found in the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus five centuries before Christ. The Hebrew philosopher Philo, writing at the time of Christ uses it 1300 times. It is central in the philosophy of Stoicism, which was the most widespread philosophy in the Mediterranean in the first century.
This use of the word Logos in the sense of underlying principle is part of Greek passion for unity. Even before Socrates, the Greek philosophers sought for some principle or substance underlying everything. One thought it was water, one air; one thought it was flux, another thought it was love. Aristotle wrote about it as the uncaused cause or the unmoved mover. As the principle of truth, Socrates thought it was important enough to die for.
John, a Jewish fisherman living in a Greek-speaking world, saw that there were two ways deity could manifest itself. As a Jew, John knew about the Hebrew God, the personal God who DOES things, specific things. He walks with Adam in the garden. He speaks with Moses on the Mountaintop telling he Hebrews what to do about mold in their houses and how far to put their latrines from their campsite. He speaks to the prophets in an audible voice. He tells Moses where to strike the rock to get water. He protects and guides the Hebrews step by step. But as a Greek-speaking convert to Christianity, John also knew the God of the Greek philosophers, the principle of unity, the god that does not really DO specific things, but which, by logical necessity, undergirds and gives coherence to everything.
As a Jew, John held in one hand what he knew about Jesus of Nazareth, the immanent messiah predicted in the Hebrew scriptures. As a Greek, he held in the other hand the most compelling idea in the Greek-speaking world, the abstract principle of unity and transcendence. He touched the two wires together at the word Logos, and it is not too much to say that through these five letters, the Hebrew Messiah fused with Greek philosophy and became something that could be passed to Augustine to the Roman world and on into the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance and to us.
On the way to Augustine it passes through the Eastern Fathers, Basil and Gregory, who were instrumental in forming the creeds, including the Nicene. That is the fourth thing John’s gospel connects to. But that is a story for another day.